One year after his arrest, an Associated Press photographer is still being held at a prison camp in Iraq by U.S. military officials who have neither formally charged him with a crime nor made public any evidence of wrongdoing.
Bilal Hussein was taken prisoner in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on April 12, 2006. Twelve months later, the U.S. military claims it is justified in continuing to imprison him merely because it considers him a security threat.
“April 12 is a sad anniversary for Bilal’s AP colleagues worldwide,” said the AP’s executive editor, Kathleen Carroll. “He has now been held by the U.S. military in Iraq for an entire year without formal charges or the due process that a democratic society demands.”
Paul Gardephe, the lawyer handling the case for the AP, recently returned from an extended visit to Iraq, where he spoke with military officials, journalists, Iraqi citizens and?for more than 40 hours?Hussein himself at the Camp Cropper prison near Baghdad’s airport.
“Bilal has done nothing to justify a year in detention without charges,” Gardephe said. “The military has not provided any credible evidence to support the various accusations of criminal conduct that it has made.”
Dozens of journalists?mostly Iraqis?have been detained by U.S. troops or Iraqi security forces during the war, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most were released without a trial after short periods, and Hussein is the only one currently being held on such a long-term basis, according to CPJ executive director Joel Simon.
“It’s unfathomable to me why, after an entire year, there has been no progress in terms of the legal process moving ahead,” Simon said. “If the U.S. government is affirming that they need time to develop evidence … a year is plenty of time.”
Hussein, 35, is allowed one-hour visits from family members once a month. His attorney and AP colleagues also are allowed to see him.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, in a written response Tuesday to AP inquiries, said the case against Hussein has been reviewed four times?mostly recently in November?by three separate entities in Iraq, among them a review board that includes representatives of the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition.
“Each of these independent, objective, fact-finding reviews considered all available evidence and determined Hussein represented an imperative threat to security and recommended continued detention,” Whitman said.
Gardephe dismissed the legality of such hearings. He pointed out that Hussein was not present and had no legal representative at those reviews, and had no chance to confront any witnesses against him or call witnesses on his own behalf.
AP executives went public with news about Hussein’s detention in September after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. They said the news cooperative’s review of Hussein’s work for the AP found no inappropriate contact with insurgents.
Numerous journalism organizations have voiced support for the AP demand that Hussein be released, and many newspapers have called for that in editorials.
Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor, is compiling a detailed report on the case based on his visit to Iraq. He intends to provide it to U.S. and Iraqi officials to buttress the requests for Hussein’s release.
During his visit, Gardephe said he met at length with U.S. military officials, discussing each of the nine informal allegations that have been cited as justifying Hussein’s detention.
Gardephe said U.S. officials indicated they lacked solid evidence on seven of the allegations and could not reveal the evidence they did have on the other two allegations because it was classified. One of those allegations is that Hussein offered to provide false identification to a sniper who was seeking to evade capture, while the other is that he took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent explosions, Gardephe said.
Gardephe disputed the validity of both those allegations. False identification cards have long been easily available from a variety of sources in Iraq, and Gardephe said insurgents would likely have a ready supply without having to turn to an AP photographer for one. He also noted that the military didn’t even claim Hussein actually provided a false ID, just that he allegedly made an offer.
As for the photo allegation, Gardephe said he examined all of the more than 900 photographs Hussein submitted to the AP during a 20-month period before his detention. “There are no photos that are synchronized with an explosion,” he said.
“The absence of evidence leads to the conclusion that Bilal is being held because of the photographs he took for the AP?which were published around the world?and which were part of AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning submission in 2005,” Gardephe said.
Hussein is among a number of news photographers and television cameramen working in Iraq’s Anbar province who have been arrested.
“We continue to believe that Bilal is being held simply because his photos from volatile Anbar province were unwelcome,” said Carroll. “We hold him close in our thoughts as we continue to work toward a resolution that will lead to his freedom.”
Gardephe said that during his visits at Camp Cropper, Hussein looked healthy and made no complaints of recent mistreatment.
“He hasn’t been interrogated since May 2006, so he clearly is not being held for intelligence value,” the attorney added. “He’s just being held to be held.”