NEW YORK – The U.S. military in Iraq has imprisoned an Associated Press photographer for five months, accusing him of being a security threat but never filing charges or permitting a public hearing.
Military officials said Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi citizen, was being held for "imperative reasons of security" under United Nations resolutions. AP executives said the news cooperative's review of Hussein's work did not find anything to indicate inappropriate contact with insurgents, and any evidence against him should be brought to the Iraqi criminal justice system.
Hussein, 35, is a native of Fallujah who began work for the AP's Iraq bureau in September 2004. He photographed events in Fallujah and Ramadi until he was detained on April 12 of this year.
"We want the rule of law to prevail. He either needs to be charged or released. Indefinite detention is not acceptable," said Tom Curley, AP's president and chief executive officer. "We've come to the conclusion that this is unacceptable under Iraqi law, or Geneva Conventions, or any military procedure."
Hussein is one of an estimated 14,000 people detained by the U.S. military worldwide — 13,000 of them in Iraq. They are held in limbo where few are ever charged with a specific crime or given a chance before any court or tribunal to argue for their freedom.
In Hussein's case, the military has not provided any concrete evidence to back up the vague allegations they have raised about him, Curley and other AP executives said.
The U.S. military said Hussein was captured with two insurgents, including Hamid Hamad Motib, an alleged leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. "He has close relationships with persons known to be responsible for kidnappings, smuggling, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and other attacks on coalition forces," according to a May 7 e-mail from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jack Gardner, who oversees all coalition detainees in Iraq.
"The information available establishes that he has relationships with insurgents and is afforded access to insurgent activities outside the normal scope afforded to journalists conducting legitimate activities," Gardner wrote to AP International Editor John Daniszewski.
Hussein proclaims his innocence, according to his Iraqi lawyer, Badie Arief Izzat, and believes he has been unfairly targeted because his photos from Ramadi and Fallujah were deemed unwelcome by the coalition forces.
That Hussein was captured at the same time as insurgents does not make him one of them, said Kathleen Carroll, AP's executive editor.
"Journalists have always had relationships with people that others might find unsavory," she said. "We're not in this to choose sides, we're to report what's going on from all sides."
AP executives in New York and Baghdad have sought to persuade U.S. officials to provide additional information about allegations against Hussein and to have his case transferred to the Iraqi criminal justice system. The AP contacted military leaders in Iraq and the Pentagon, and later the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The AP has worked quietly until now, believing that would be the best approach. But with the U.S. military giving no indication it would change its stance, the news cooperative has decided to make public Hussein's imprisonment, hoping the spotlight will bring attention to his case and that of thousands of others now held in Iraq, Curley said.
One of Hussein's photos was part of a package of 20 photographs that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography last year. His contribution was an image of four insurgents in Fallujah firing a mortar and small arms during the U.S.-led offensive in the city in November 2004.
In what several AP editors described as a typical path for locally hired staff in the midst of a conflict, Hussein, a shopkeeper who sold cell phones and computers in Fallujah, was hired in the city as a general helper because of his local knowledge.
As the situation in Fallujah eroded in 2004, he expressed a desire to become a photographer. Hussein was given training and camera equipment and hired in September of that year as a freelancer, paid on a per-picture basis, according to Santiago Lyon, AP's director of photography. A month later, he was put on a monthly retainer.
During the U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah in November 2004, he stayed on after his family fled. "He had good access. He was able to photograph not only the results of the attacks on Fallujah, he was also able to photograph members of the insurgency on occasion," Lyon said. "That was very difficult to achieve at that time."
After fleeing later in the offensive, leaving his camera behind in the rush to escape, Hussein arrived in Baghdad, where the AP gave him a new camera. He then went to work in Ramadi which, like Fallujah, has been a center of insurgent violence.
In its own effort to determine whether Hussein had gotten too close the insurgency, the AP has reviewed his work record, interviewed senior photo editors who worked on his images and examined all 420 photographs in the news cooperative's archives that were taken by Hussein, Lyon said.
The military in Iraq has frequently detained journalists who arrive quickly at scenes of violence, accusing them of getting advance notice from insurgents, Lyon said. But "that's just good journalism. Getting to the event quickly is something that characterizes good journalism anywhere in the world. It does not indicate prior knowledge," he said.
Out of Hussein's body of work, only 37 photos show insurgents or people who could be insurgents, Lyon said. "The vast majority of the 420 images show the aftermath or the results of the conflict — blown up houses, wounded people, dead people, street scenes," he said.
Only four photos show the wreckage of still-burning U.S. military vehicles.
"Do we know absolutely everything about him, and what he did before he joined us? No. Are we satisfied that what he did since he joined us was appropriate for the level of work we expected from him? Yes," Lyon said. "When we reviewed the work he submitted to us, we found it appropriate to what we'd asked him to do."
The AP does not knowingly hire combatants or anyone who is part of a story, company executives said. But hiring competent local staff in combat areas is vital to the news service, because often only local people can pick their way around the streets with a reasonable degree of safety.
"We want people who are not part of a story. Sometimes it is a judgment call. If someone seems to be thuggish, or like a fighter, you certainly wouldn't hire them," Daniszewski said. After they are hired, their work is checked carefully for signs of bias.
Lyon said every image from local photographers is always "thoroughly checked and vetted" by experienced editors. "In every case where there have been images of insurgents, questions have been asked about circumstances under which the image was taken, and what the image shows," he said.
Executives said it is not uncommon for AP news people to be picked up by coalition forces and detained for hours, days or occasionally weeks, but never this long. Several hundred journalists in Iraq have been detained, some briefly and some for several weeks, according to Scott Horton, a New York-based lawyer hired by the AP to work on Hussein's case.
Horton also worked on behalf of an Iraqi cameraman employed by CBS, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, who was detained for one year before his case was sent to an Iraqi court on charges of insurgent activity. He was acquitted for lack of evidence.
AP officials emphasized the military has not provided the company concrete evidence of its claims against Bilal Hussein, or provided him a chance to offer a defense.
"He's a Sunni Arab from a tribe in that area. I'm sure he does know some nasty people. But is he a participant in the insurgency? I don't think that's been proven," Daniszewski said.
Information provided to the AP by the military to support the continued detention has not withstood scrutiny, when it could be checked, Daniszewski said.
For example, he said, the AP had been told that Hussein was involved with the kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi.
But those journalists, tracked down by the AP, said Hussein had helped them after they were released by their captors without money or a vehicle in a dangerous part of Ramadi. After a journalist acquaintance put them in touch with Hussein, the photographer picked them up, gave them shelter and helped get them out of town, they said.
The journalists said they had never been contacted by multinational forces for their account.
Horton said the military has provided contradictory accounts of whether Hussein himself was a U.S. target last April or if he was caught up in a broader sweep.
The military said bomb-making materials were found in the apartment where Hussein was captured but it never detailed what those materials were. The military said he tested positive for traces of explosives. Horton said that was virtually guaranteed for anyone on the streets of Ramadi at that time.
Hussein has been a frequent target of conservative critics on the Internet, who raised questions about his images months before the military detained him. One blogger and author, Michelle Malkin, wrote about Hussein's detention on the day of his arrest, saying she had been tipped by a military source.
Carroll said the role of journalists can be misconstrued and make them a target of critics. But that criticism is misplaced, she said.
"How can you know what a conflict is like if you're only with one side of the combatants?" she said. "Journalism doesn't work if we don't report and photograph all sides."