Associated Press (AP) photographer Bilal Hussein, held without charges by the U.S. military for over 20 months, received his first criminal hearing before an Iraqi investigative magistrate on Dec. 9, 2007 in Baghdad.
The hearing before Iraqi magistrate Dhia al-Kinani was to determine whether there were grounds under Iraqi law to try Hussein before a three-judge panel, according to an AP report on December 9. Al-Kinani issued an order stating that details of the nearly seven-hour, closed proceedings were to remain secret.
The U.S. military has refused to disclose to the media specific evidence or allegations concerning the grounds for Hussein’s detention. According to a Nov. 19, 2007 AP story, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell stated that Hussein, a native of Fallujah, was an operative who infiltrated the AP and was linked to terrorist groups in Iraq. Morrell said the military had “convincing and irrefutable evidence” that Hussein is linked to insurgent activity.
Hussein’s defense attorney, Paul Gardephe, confirmed to the AP in a story on the day of the hearing that no formal charges had been brought against the photographer, a member of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photography team. Gardephe said that he was allowed to view some material during the proceedings, but not to make copies of any evidence.
The AP asserts that the U.S. military’s allegations against Hussein are false. In a statement dated December 9 posted on the AP Web site, http://www.ap.org, AP Director of Media Relations Paul Colford said “The Associated Press continues to believe that Bilal Hussein was a photojournalist working in a war zone and that claims that he is involved with insurgent activities are false.”
Hussein was seized on April 12, 2006 in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, according to the AP’s November 19 story. Shortly after the photographer was detained, the AP appealed to the U.S. military to release him or bring him to trial. The AP also noted November 19 that there were a number of unofficial accusations that were “floated” against Hussein, which were then withdrawn with little explanation. (See “CPJ Urges Defense Department to Release or Charge AP Photographer Detained in Prison Camp” in the Winter 2007 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
AP President and CEO Tom Curley said in the November 19 AP article, “While we are hopeful that there could be some resolution to Bilal Hussein’s long detention, we have grave concerns that his rights under the law continue to be ignored and even abused.”
An unnamed U.S. military spokesman told The New York Times in an article published Dec. 17, 2007 that Hussein has been “treated fairly, humanely and in accordance with all applicable law.”
An investigation initiated by the AP after Hussein’s arrest, described in the November 19 AP story, contended that on the day he was taken into custody, Hussein was in the streets of Ramadi buying bread. Hearing a blast in a nearby street, he invited several strangers to seek shelter in his apartment with him, as is customary during such instances of unrest in the streets.
U.S. marines arrived at Hussein’s apartment and asked to use it as an observation post. The marines later took Hussein into custody and confiscated his laptop and satellite phone. The AP reported in its November 19 story that two of the guests Hussein invited back to his apartment after the explosion in Ramadi were suspected insurgents, and one of them was later convicted for having fake identification.
CNN reported on Nov. 19, 2007 that bomb parts and insurgent propaganda were found in Hussein’s apartment. CNN also reported that according to Pentagon press secretary Morrell, Hussein had already aroused the U.S. military’s suspicions because he arrived at terrorist attack sites so quickly. The military suspected that he had advance knowledge of attacks.
The New York Times reported on December 17 that a military spokesperson had informed the newspaper in an e-mail message that Hussein had been named by sources as having knowledge of an improvised explosive device attack on American and Iraqi forces. According to the sources, Hussein was standing by the triggerman at the time of the attack and took photographs of the triggerman as he initiated the explosion and attack on the troops.
According to The New York Times, Hussein took a photograph in Fallujah on Nov. 8, 2004 of Iraqi insurgents firing a mortar and small arms. The photograph was among the 20 photographs that won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography for the AP in 2005. The military spokesperson did not indicate in his e-mail whether this was the photograph implicated by the sources that named Hussein as being involved in explosive attacks on American and Iraqi forces.
The e-mail to the Times also indicated that Hussein had knowingly and willingly offered to provide a false Iraqi national identification card to an alleged sniper in order to help him avoid capture by the U.S. military.
Over the past three years, the U.S. military has held eight other Iraqi journalists for weeks or months without charges and later released them, according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Hussein had been working for the AP for two years before his arrest in April 2006. John Daniszewski, the AP’s international editor, told The New York Times in December 2007 that Hussein initially began working for the AP as a driver and helper in April 2004 when soldiers first came to Fallujah. Photography was his hobby, however, and the AP eventually provided him with the necessary equipment to become a photographer.
“He said he always wanted to be a professional photographer,” Daniszewski said. “And we had a need there. We gave him training, equipment and he just did good work.”
Western news organizations rely heavily on Iraqi stringers and freelancers in Iraq. David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters, told The New York Times “using local staff is something we do everywhere in the world. But it’s become so dangerous in Iraq, we’re even more dependent on local staff there than in other places.”
Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for CPJ, told The New York Times “the reliance on local staff is nothing new, whether it be in the West Bank, or Gaza or other places.” But, he added, Iraq “is the most dangerous conflict we’ve seen at CPJ in our 26 years. In Iraq, the ubiquity and scale of danger has really hampered the ability of journalists to gather news.”
According to the CPJ, of the 124 journalists killed in Iraq since the war began, 102 have been Iraqis.
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant