NEW YORK — The Pentagon defended its monthslong detention of an Associated Press photographer in Iraq, asserting that it has authority to imprison him indefinitely without charges because it believes he had improper ties to insurgents.
But journalism organizations said that covering all sides in the Iraq war sometimes requires contacts with insurgents. They called on the Pentagon to either bring charges against photographer Bilal Hussein so he can defend himself, or release him.
Hussein, an Iraqi photographer employed by the AP, was captured in Ramadi on April 12 of this year. AP executives, who worked on his case behind the scenes for five months, on Sunday made a public call for the military to transfer him to Iraq’s criminal justice system or release him.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that the military has not changed its position.
“All indications that I have received are that Hussein’s detainment indicates that he has strong ties with known insurgents and that he was doing things, involved in activities, that were well outside the scope of what you would expect a journalist to be doing,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He refused to provide any details.
AP calls for court hearing
But AP Associate General Counsel Dave Tomlin said Whitman failed to address the main argument made by the AP, that Hussein get his day in court.
“Mr. Whitman says it would be ‘up to the central criminal court of Iraq’ to charge Bilal with any wrongdoing. But the Iraqi court can’t do that until the U.S. military hands over Bilal and whatever evidence they have against him to Iraqi authorities,” Tomlin said.
“This is exactly what AP and Bilal are asking for,” he said. “If the evidence isn’t strong enough to support charges, however, Bilal should be released.”
Hussein is one of an estimated 14,000 people detained as suspected security threats by the U.S. military worldwide — 13,000 of them in Iraq. Few are charged with a specific crime or given a chance before any court or tribunal to argue for their freedom.
Whitman said that Hussein’s case has been reviewed three times by U.S. and Iraqi detention authorities. But the AP had only been told of one review, and that had taken place without any representation from Hussein or his representatives, Tomlin said.
Whether it was one hearing or three, none of them provide “due process” because Hussein never got to hear the accusations made against him, see the evidence or argue against any of it, Tomlin said.
Groups call for charges or release
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “alarmed” by Hussein’s lengthy detention, because U.S. officials had promised journalist detentions would be promptly reviewed.
Reporters Without Borders, an international association, called for the U.S. military to charge Hussein or release him, as the AP has.
On Tuesday, the group released a formal statement: “We call on the U.S. authorities to put an immediate end to this violation of the rule of law.”
“If they think this journalist was not a journalist but an insurgent, then they have to prove it,” said Lucie Morillon, the group’s Washington representative. “We don’t want as a consequence that journalists should be worried about covering insurgents because they’ll be arrested by U.S. forces. We need to know (the story) from both sides.”
CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said photographing insurgents should not be cause for imprisonment.
“There’s no way to cover an insurgency without having contact with insurgents,” Simon said. “If we’re in an environment where any contact or documentation of activities of insurgents is cause for indefinite detention, that really puts a damper on the work of the press.”
Photographers work reviewed
The AP’s decision to reveal the details of Hussein’s detention and its efforts to assist him spurred a new round of debate among bloggers. Conservative critics on the Internet raised questions about Hussein’s images months before the military detained him.
Conservative bloggers, such as John Hinderaker at Powerlineblog.com, said news of Hussein’s detention confirmed their suspicions that the photographer was working with the insurgents, who wanted their photos to reach the Western media for propaganda purposes.
But Will Bunch, a blogger for the Philadelphia Daily News, said such critics “have no respect for the American principle of a free and unfettered press, no understanding of what a photojournalist does or the importance that uncensored photos can play in the political debate half a world away.”
The military has said that Hussein was captured with two insurgents. A native of Fallujah, he worked as a photographer in Fallujah and Ramadi, two centers of the Iraq insurgency.
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 its own effort to determine whether Hussein had gotten too close to the insurgency, the AP 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.
Of those, AP executives said, only 37 photos show insurgents or people who could be insurgents, and only four show the wreckage of still-burning U.S. military vehicles. The military in Iraq has often detained journalists who arrive quickly at scenes of violence, accusing them of getting advance notice from insurgents.
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