The Associated Press broke nearly five months of silence today and publicly asked the U.S. military to either charge or release Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi freelance photographer who has been in U.S. custody without charges levied against him for the past five months.
Hussein was taken into U.S. military custody on April 12, in Ramadi, and has been detained since then as a security detainee.
“The Associated Press certainly appreciates the challenges facing the U.S. military in Iraq. For more than five months, we have tried to work with the military or its representatives,” Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, said in a release. “Our review has convinced us that the matter is not about a crime or threat to American security. It’s about justice.”
“Bilal Hussein has been held in violation of Iraqi law and in disregard to the Geneva Conventions. He must be charged under the Iraqi system or released immediately.”
According to the U.S. military, Hussein was captured with two insurgents, including Hamid Hamad Motib, an alleged leader of al-Qaida 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.
The news cooperative said its own investigation had produced no evidence that Hussein had done anything to justify his detention, and added that information provided to the AP by the military to support the continued detention hasn’t withstood scrutiny.
A lawyer for Hussein told the AP that his client maintains his innocence, and believes that he has been “unfairly targeted because his photos from Ramadi and Fallujah were deemed unwelcome by the coalition forces.”
Hussein, 35, is a native of Fallujah who began working for the AP in September 2004. A former shopkeeper who sold cell phones and computers in Fallujah, he was first hired by the AP as a general helper because of his local knowledge. In what has become a typical path for locally hired staff in Iraq, he was later given training and camera equipment and paid on a per-picture basis, before eventually graduating to a monthly retainer.
AP officials maintain that every photo taken by local stringers are “thoroughly checked and vetted” by a staff of experienced editors. Because the violence in Iraq has severely curtailed the ability of Western journalists to work in the war-torn country, news agencies have increasingly relied on locals for photos and information. That strategy backfired recently in Lebanon, when a local stringer for Reuters was caught fabricating images of that country’s conflict with Israel.
Despite his relative inexperience, Hussein has been able to make several arresting images of the war in Iraq. He was among a group of AP photographers honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2005 for a picture from November 2004 depicting Iraqi insurgents firing mortar and small arms at U.S. positions during the battle of Fallujah.
Conservative critics have targeted Hussein’s work by questioning his involvement with the Iraqi insurgency. But in an AP news article, executives for the news cooperative say Hussein’s ability to arrive quickly at the scene of violence is simply good journalism.
“Getting to the event quickly is something that characterizes good journalism anywhere in the world. It does not indicate prior knowledge,” says Santiago Lyon, the AP’s director of photography.
“Journalists have always had relationships with people that others might find unsavory,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor. “We’re not in this to choose sides, we’re to report what’s going on from all sides.”
After reviewing Hussein’s complete body of work, Lyon reported that only 37 photos show insurgents or people who could be insurgents. “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.”
According to the AP, Hussein is one of an estimated 14,000 people detained by the U.S. military worldwide, including 13,000 in Iraq. Few are ever charged with a specific crime or given a chance before any court or tribunal to argue for their freedom.
“We want the rule of law to prevail. He either needs to be charged or released. Indefinite detention is not acceptable,” Curley said, “We’ve come to the conclusion that this is unacceptable under Iraqi law, or Geneva Conventions, or any military procedure.”
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.