Last journalist in US detention will not be home by Christmas

Despite an order issued last week by the Iraqi Central Criminal Court, the US military is refusing to release Iraqi freelance photojournalist, Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, who has been held in Camp Cropper prison at the Baghdad airport since September.
  Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed. © Reuters

BEIRUT, December 11, 2008 (MENASSAT) — The Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled on November 30 that there was no evidence against Ibrahim Jassam, who works for the Reuters news agency as well as local media, and that he should be immediately released by the US forces. However, the US military said it is not obliged to obey an Iraqi court order, and they will continue to hold Jassam at least until 2009.   

According to a spokesman for the US military's detainee operations in Iraq, Major Neal Fisher, the journalist has been deemed a security threat and will not be released immediately, as ordered by the Iraqi court.
"Though we appreciate the decision of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq in the Jassam case, their decision does not negate the intelligence information that currently lists him as a threat to Iraq security and stability," Fisher said in an email to Reuters.

Despite calls by media rights organizations for Jassam's release, including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Iraq's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), the US military has decided that Jassam's case will be treated like that of all other detainees.

"He will be processed for release in a safe and orderly manner after December 31, in the order of his individual threat level, along with all other detainees," Fisher said. "Since he already has a decision from the CCCI, when it is his turn for release he will be able to out-process without having to go through the courts as other detainees in his threat classification will have to do."

Jassam was arrested by joint US and Iraqi forces on September 2, 2008, after they raided his home in Mahmoodiya in the south of Baghdad. His equipment was also confiscated. 

In a press release issued by the JFO, the local organization is calling on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to intervene with the US military and use his power to release Jassam. The journalist's sister told JFO that the whole family is worried about Jassam, especially after his last call to his family on Tuesday when he told them that his psychological state is very bad.

The Iraqi prosecutors tried to obtain evidence in Jassam's case from the US, but they received none. In fact, the US military has stated in the past that it has the right to hold security detainees regardless of any decision by the Iraqi courts to free them.

Both Fisher, who has refused to meet with Reuters, and the US commander of the prisons operations, Brigadier General David Quantock, have stated that the US military is "not bound" to provide military intelligence to Iraqi courts.

"I will not ask [Brig. Gen. Quantock] to make this detainee more important than the other 15,800 detainees, when he has already made his decision," Fisher told Reuters. In an email response to the JFO, Fisher said, "Any not convicted detainee is to be set free as per the new security agreement."

Under the new Iraqi security pact, which goes into effect on January 1, 2009, the US will no longer be able to hold prisoners without charge. The US will either have to prosecute prisoners in Iraqi courts or release them.

However, Joel Simon, Executive Director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a blog posting that he US has been known to hold journalists without charges for long periods, despite a promise in March 2006 that cases involving journalists would be processed within 36 hours. For example, Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj was detained for more than six years at Guantanamo; AP photographer Bilal Hussein was held for two years in Iraq; and Jawed Ahmad was held in Afghanistan for 11 months.

In an interview with MENASSAT, Frank Smyth, the Washington Representative and Journalist Security Coordinator for CPJ, said that the US needs to make a decision regarding Jassam's case.

"In every case they have hinted at possible allegations but have never charged [the detained journalists] by law. An allegation is not a charge. Either charge them with the crime or release them. This journalist is the only journalist still in prison held by the US military anywhere in the world, as far as we know."

Ernest Sagaga, the Human Rights and Communications Officer at the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), is equally disappointed by the US decision to delay Jassam's release.

"We think it should happen. If we are going to encourage the respect for the rule of law, everybody—including coalition authorities—have to lead by example. When the court decides that there was no evidence, that person should be released. We strongly condemn this decision, which makes a mockery of the coalition's handover of powers to Iraqi sovereign institutions."

Sagaga says that the IFJ is still hoping the Americans will release Jassam  in accordance with the court order, or at least in January, as Fisher claims. "If he is not released in accordance with the court order it poses a dangerous precedent. We are really calling on the US military to implement this decision and release Ibrahim.”  
The CPJ's Simon echoed that sentiment. "Because the US government has detained dozens of journalists and never managed to prosecute a single one, I am hopeful that Jassam will eventually be released," Simon said. "But I wonder if months or years of his life will be lost in the process."