“The Amnesty Committee took only a few days to determine what we have been saying for two years”, said AP CEO and president Tom Curley. “Bilal Hussein must be freed immediately.”
However, it is still not clear whether the US military in Iraq will comply with the request to release the Pulitzer-winning 36-year old photojournalist from Camp Cropper, near Baghdad. In the past, the US – who are holding an estimated 23,000 Iraqis without charge – have refused to release around one in every 25 of those acquitted in the Iraqi courts.
The move follows a secret court hearing during which neither Hussein or AP were allowed to see or challenge the prosecution evidence. The US military had insisted that one of their soldiers be present whenever Hussein met with his lawyer to discuss the case. In a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ahead of Hussein’s first court appearance, Tom Curley wrote that he was “concerned that U.S. military authorities are doing their best to make it difficult for his case to receive a fair hearing.”
An early report from AP said that a four-judge panel had decided that Hussein’s case fell under a new ‘amnesty’ law passed in February this year. It is not yet clear whether the decision represents a formal acquittal and finding of innocence, or whether authorities had decided to drop the prosecution case with neither implication of innocence or guilt.
AP investigation “shows no evidence of wrongdoing”
No formal charges against Hussein have been made public since his arrest at his apartment in April 2006 at his apartment in Ramadi. However, the US Military have repeatedly made certain allegations against the photographer, who they have described as an “insurgent propagandist” who was complicit in the events he photographed.
Many of the allegations which have been made against Hussein are refuted by an AP report into the circumstances surrounding his arrest.
These include allegations repeatedly made on right-wing blogs that Hussein was arrested in a fortified derelict building with a weapons cache, that he was complicit in the kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi in March 2006, or that he was responsible for the killing of hostage Salvatore Santoro.
“The military has shown AP nothing that gives reasonable grounds for believing Bilal has engaged in any illegal or hostile acts against US or Iraqi authorities or citizens” said Tom Curley in November 2007. “Our own review shows no evidence of wrongdoing.”
“Your photos present a threat to us”
AP maintain that Hussein’s detention was because he produced photographs which refuted the US military’s account of the war. According to the report, a US interrogator told Hussein: “Your photos present a threat to us”.
Referring to photographs taken shortly before his arrest, he allegedly stated: “Do you know what would happen if these photographs were shown in the US ? There would be huge demonstrations and we would have to leave Iraq. This is why you won’t be released.”
Several months after Hussein’s arrest, AP CEO and president Tom Curley described Hussein as “taking photographs that coalition commanders would prefer not to see published”.
In November last year he told the BBC that he believed the US military simply wished to keep Mr Hussein in jail for as long as possible to prevent news photographs being supplied from Anbar province, which he described as an “information black hole”.
Despite describing Hussein as a threat to the security of Iraq, the AP report details how US military interrogators offered to release Hussein, and double his salary if he was prepared to secretly spy for them while working for AP. Hussein turned down the offer,saying it would compromise his journalistic integrity and told AP’s lawyer of the approach.
“Journalists are routinely harassed, beaten and kidnapped”
The unstable and violent situation in Iraq has presented significant difficulties for wire agencies, who rely heavily on local stringers, many of whom had not previously worked as journalists.
This method of newsgathering, which is common to all Western news media in the region, has been heavily attacked by right-wing bloggers who believe that it leads to the reporting of the war in Iraq being more favourable to insurgents, or that US-based AP should not report incidents which are report on insurgent activity against US troops.
AP believes that the US military in Iraq deliberately harass and arrest stringers to prevent media coverage in certain areas, and to deter other Iraqis from working for media organisations. AP’s Tom Curley says “Both official and unofficial parties on every side of a conflict try to discredit or silence news they don’t like. That is certainly the case in Iraq, where journalists are routinely harassed, defamed, beaten and kidnapped.”
Newsgatherers arrested then released without charge
Reuters have had at least three of their journalists detained by US military without charge. Cameramen Majed Hameed and Samir Mohammed Noor were arrested separately after being described as “security threats”. They were released without charge after four months and eight months respectively.
Reuters photographer Ali Mashhadani was arrested and held without charge after being described as a “security threat” by the US military. He was freed after five months.
Agence France Presse (AFP) reporter Ammar Daham Naef Khalaf was released without charge after being detained for six months. AFP photographer Fares Nawaf al-Issaywi was held in custody for two weeks by the US military before being released without charge.
CBS Cameraman Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein was first shot in the leg by a US sniper before being arrested for “recruiting and inciting Iraqi nationals to violence against coalition forces and participating in attacks against coalition forces”. His release was ordered after an Iraqi judge questioned whether the US military had lied under oath at his trial to fabricate evidence of his guilt.
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