By: Daryl Lang, Photo District News
The U.S. military produced only two witnesses to testify at Bilal Hussein’s investigative hearing, according to Hussein’s lawyer.
In the first details to be revealed about the court proceedings, attorney Paul Gardephe says two Marines who arrested Hussein in 2006 testified against him by videoconference. The military also presented evidence including 64 CDs that contained Hussein’s archive of photos and printouts of some of his images. Additionally, the military submitted the result of a positive explosive residue swab test, which Gardephe says may have tested positive because an explosion went off near Hussein’s apartment the day he was arrested.
“There were no surprises,” Gardephe says. “There was never any evidence that suggested to me that he was performing in any other role than a photographer covering a conflict.”
Gardephe spoke to PDN Wednesday, hours after Hussein’s release from U.S. military custody.
Hussein’s hearings in the Iraqi criminal court system began in December 2007. Little has been known about the hearings, since a judge ordered participants not to discuss the case with the press.
Hussein, accused of working with the Iraqi insurgency, was held for over two years and released only after an Iraqi judicial committee granted him amnesty and a U.S. commander ordered he be set free. Hussein has always maintained his innocence.
Gardephe says Hussein showed “strength of mind” during his two years in U.S. military custody and always wanted to return to photography.
“He was always very clear to me, he wanted to continue working as a photographer for the AP, and that’s what I expect he will be doing,” says Gardephe.
Gardephe was hired by AP in 2006 to represent Hussein. He traveled to Iraq four times, most recently last month.
“When I saw him in March, his spirits were high. There was no whining, there was no complaining, there was just enormous appreciation on his part that we were still fighting for his release,” Gardephe says.
As he worked to convince the military to release Hussein, Gardephe presented the results of his own investigations. Military investigators were willing to meet with Gardephe, but offered little response.
“We never had what I would characterize as a meaningful dialogue with the military,” Gardephe says.
“I would go over to Iraq, I would meet with the military, the JAG officers, attempt to develop a relationship with them? I’d come back a few months later, they would all be gone and a whole different cast of characters in, and then you’d have to start all over again,” he says.
After his 2006 arrest, Hussein was interrogated at Abu Ghraib prison, but soon was transferred to the U.S. military’s Camp Cropper facility. Communication with his family became difficult as phone privileges were revoked for Camp Cropper detainees. His family had to make dangerous trips from their home in Fallujah to Baghdad to visit Hussein in person.
Hussein is far from the only Iraqi who has been held for long periods of time without charge; the U.S. military is holding 23,000 security detainees, according to a recent estimate. Gardephe isn’t sure if Hussein was singled out for his journalism.
“I don’t know why they held him. And we’ll probably never know,” he says. But he says Hussein’s photo of insurgents in Fallujah firing a weapon, which was part of the AP portfolio that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, may have contributed to his arrest and detention. “I think that photograph and the Pulitzer Prize put him on the radar screen, [and] made him much more prominent than his peers,” Gardephe says.
“I think the case is more than Bilal Hussein,” Gardephe continues. “He was part of a much larger issue, which is who is going to control the flow of information from the battlefield. ? I think he was someone who got caught up in the debate, and it will be a continuing debate and struggle between the media and the military.”