AP photographer Bilal Hussein freed

The U.S. military has released Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein after holding him for more than two years. Hussein was handed over to AP colleagues on Wednesday in Baghdad.
Bilal tribute
AP photographer Bilal Hussein (center) with colleagues in Ramadi in September 2005. © AP

BEIRUT, April 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Bilal Hussein's release on Wednesday afternoon follows a decision by an Iraqi judicial panel earlier this month dismissing all allegations against him.

Thirty-six year old Hussein was detained by the U.S. military on April 12, 2006 in Ramadi, 100 kilometers outside Baghdad, on terrorist suspicions. He was referred to as a potential "terrorist media operative" by the U.S. forces who accused him of possessing bomb-making materials, working with insurgents, and offering to provide a forged ID to a wanted terrorist.

According to Hussein's employer, the Associated Press, the U.S. military believed Hussein had contacts with the kidnappers of a murdered Italian citizen, Salvatore Santoro. Hussein had photographed Santoro's dead body surrounded by masked gunmen in 2004. Hussein however claims that he was held up at gunpoint by insurgents and taken to see the body.

Hussein's close contacts with the Sunni insurgency, and his close-up battle photos of insurgent fighters in Ramadi and other places, raised suspicions that he was sympathetic to their cause.

They also helped the AP win a Pulitzer prize for its team coverage of the Iraqi insurgency. The AP has always maintained that Hussein was only doing his job as a journalist.

AP President Tom Curley expressed relief after the U.S. military announced the decision to release Hussein on Monday.

"In time we will celebrate Bilal's release", said Curley. "For now, we want him safe and united with his family. While we may never see eye to eye with the U.S. military over this case, it is time for all of us to move on."

This photo taken by Bilal Hussein in Fallujah was part of a package that won
the AP a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2005. © AP

No formal charges were ever brought against Hussein. In December 2007, the case was finally transferred to Iraq's Central Criminal Court (CCCI). The judicial committee dismissed the terrorism charges against Hussein on April 7 and ordered him released.

Even after that there was no guarantee that Hussein would be released if the Americans still considered him a security risk. But on Monday, the U.S. military declared that Hussein did no longer pose a threat and that he would to be released on Wednesday.

"After the action by the Iraqi judicial committees, we reviewed the circumstances of Hussein's detention and determined that he no longer presents an imperative threat to security," said Major General Douglas Stone, head of U.S. detainee operations in Iraq. "I have therefore ordered that he be released from coalition force custody."

Rights groups have criticized the handling of Hussein's case and have constantly appealed for the photographer's release.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the detention of Hussein as a "terrible injustice."

"It is alarming that he has been held this long without being charged and having had only a single day in court," CPJ's Executive Director Joel Simon said following Hussein's acquittal by the Iraqi court.

The AP held an internal investigation into Hussein's alleged connections with the insurgency and said "it revealed nothing to suggest he was involved in activities beyond the scope of his professional activities."

According to rights groups, the case of Hussein is not an isolated incident. 

The CPJ claims that "dozens of journalists – mostly Iraqis – have been detained by U.S. troops over the past four years."

While the majority have been freed after short periods in custody, several have been held "for weeks or months without charge or conviction," the CPJ said.

Another U.S.-based watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, has also said that numerous Iraqi journalists working for international media groups have been detained for "lengthy periods of time" by U.S. forces, particularly those working in areas that witnessed clashes between US troops and insurgents.