Magazine article American Journalism Review

Behind Bars: An Iraqi Working as a Contract Photographer for the Associated Press Has Been Held-Uncharged-By the U.S. Military for Seven Months. the U.S. Says Bilal Hussein Has Links to Terrorists. the Outraged AP Implores the Pentagon to Charge Him or Free Him

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Behind Bars: An Iraqi Working as a Contract Photographer for the Associated Press Has Been Held-Uncharged-By the U.S. Military for Seven Months. the U.S. Says Bilal Hussein Has Links to Terrorists. the Outraged AP Implores the Pentagon to Charge Him or Free Him

Article excerpt

The United States is reported to be holding about 13,000 people in military prisons in Iraq, but only one of them is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Bilal Hussein is a 35-year-old Sunni Arab and a native of Al-Anbar Province, the largest province in Iraq and, excluding Baghdad, the most violent. On the morning of April 12, United States Marines showed up at Hussein's door in Ramadi, the provincial capital, where he worked as a contract photographer for the Associated Press. He has been a prisoner ever since, first in local custody, then at Abu Ghraib and now at Camp Cropper, just west of Baghdad International Airport. Enclosed by concrete blast walls and ringed with coils of razor wire, Camp Cropper is where U.S. forces keep many of their "high-value detainees."

Since his arrest more than seven months ago, no formal charges have been brought against Bilal Hussein (no relation to Saddam Hussein). The AP has urged military officials to either free him or put him on trial, but so far they have declined. A military spokesman in Iraq told me that three separate panels have been convened to hear the evidence in Hussein's case, and all three concluded that Hussein had "multiple links and prolonged association with al Qaeda members and insurgent propaganda cell leaders." The AP says neither Hussein nor his representatives were allowed to be present at any of these hearings, and Hussein was told about only one of them, long after the fact. To this day, the AP says, he has never had an opportunity to hear the evidence against him. When I asked the military what evidence it had, I was told that most of it is classified.

Tom Curley, the AP's president and CEO, says whenever the military has given specific details, the AP has taken them seriously and tried to investigate. Some of those investigations showed that the claims "were false or total exaggerations," he says. "I have no problem saying the Pentagon lied to us more than once."

Curley and other AP executives say they think Hussein's real crime was taking pictures of insurgents on their own turf or in combat situations--in other words, pictures the military disliked.

"This is about thwarting a journalist from reporting the news," says Curley, in a voice that quivers with anger. "We have seen no fact that diminishes our belief that Bilal Hussein is not guilty of anything except committing journalism."

Western news organizations have increasingly employed Iraqi stringers as the pervasive violence has made it harder for foreigners to move about safely (see "Out of Reach," April/May). Hussein is not the only one of these stringers to be arrested by the U.S. military and accused of being in bed with insurgents. In fact, there is a pattern of such arrests. A CBS cameraman was detained for an entire year before an Iraqi court decided to free him last spring, declaring that the military had no case.

One senses here a sharp disagreement over exactly what constitutes proper journalism. The military does not define it, but in an e-mail to me a spokesperson for Detainee Operations in Iraq said Hussein had "access to insurgent activities outside of the normal scope afforded to journalists." Another e-mail from the same office said Hussein had "crossed the line from journalistic pursuit to complicity" with the insurgents.

The AP argues that the military has no business dictating what is correct journalistic practice. "That's our call, not theirs," says Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor.

Hussein's colleagues fear that his life is in danger as long as he remains in prison. The mere fact of working for a major U.S.-based company would make him a target, but on top of that he is a Sunni publicly accused of sympathizing with Sunni fighters. His continued imprisonment, says Curley, "may be a death sentence for a Sunni being held with a large number of Shia prisoners."

Scott Horton, a New York City attorney hired by the AP to represent Hussein, says Iraqi lawyers helping with the case have been threatened repeatedly. …

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