By: Robert Reid, The Associated Press
An Iraqi judicial panel dismissed the last remaining criminal allegation against Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein on Sunday and ordered him released from custody, two years and one day after he was detained by the U.S. military.
The committee of three judges and a prosecutor of the Federal Appeals Court granted amnesty to Hussein, 36, saying there should be no further action on allegations that he may have had improper contacts with insurgents who had killed an Italian citizen, Salvatore Santoro.
In December 2004, Hussein and two other journalists were stopped by armed men and taken at gunpoint to photograph the corpse, propped up with armed insurgents standing over it.
In the unanimous decision, the panel ordered a “halt to all legal proceedings” and said Hussein, who remains in U.S. custody, should be “released immediately” unless he is wanted in connection with something else.
Last week, the panel dismissed accusations under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law. Those accusations, part of a file given to an Iraqi investigative judge by the U.S. military, alleged Hussein had cooperated with terrorists and had possessed bomb-making materials in his house.
Throughout his incarceration, Hussein has maintained he is innocent and was only doing the work of a news photographer in a war zone.
Both judicial decisions determined that Hussein’s cases fell under an amnesty law enacted in February. Under the law, meant as a step toward national reconciliation, a grant of amnesty effectively closes a case and does not assume or determine guilt or innocence of the accused, unless he had been convicted. Hussein was never brought to trial.
Asked about the latest ruling Sunday, the U.S. military had no immediate comment. Previously, U.S. spokesmen had said officials intended to review the case and the judicial panel’s orders before deciding on releasing Hussein from custody.
U.S. military authorities have said that a U.N. Security Council mandate allows them to detain anyone in Iraq deemed a security risk to coalition or Iraqi forces, even if an Iraqi judicial body has ordered that prisoner freed. The mandate is due to expire this year.
“We are grateful for the decision of the Amnesty Council and the Iraqi judges,” AP President Tom Curley said after the ruling Sunday. “We look forward to Bilal’s safe return to his family and to AP.”
Hussein was arrested by U.S. Marines on April 12, 2006, at the apartment where he was staying in the western city of Ramadi and eventually was transferred to the U.S. detention facility at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad’s airport. He has been allowed visits from defense lawyers, family representatives and representatives of the AP.
In December 2007, the U.S. military referred the case to an investigating judge, who reviewed the evidence early this year and submitted his findings to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq to determine whether the case should go to trial. The court in turn referred the case to the amnesty panel.
On the Santoro case, Hussein and the other two journalists recounted the incident to the AP after they were released by the armed men outside of Ramadi. None of the journalists had witnessed the Italian citizen’s death, said Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography. The AP published an account at the time and also spoke with an Italian diplomat in Baghdad.
The AP said a review of Hussein’s work and contacts found no evidence of any activities beyond the normal role of a news photographer. Hussein was a member of an AP team that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005, and his detention has drawn protests from rights groups and press freedom advocates such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.