msnbc.com news services
updated 11/21/2007 11:49:03 AM ET 2007-11-21T16:49:03

The U.S. military on Wednesday defended its 19-month detention of an award-winning Associated Press photographer it has accused of working with insurgents in Iraq, saying he remained a "security threat."

Bilal Hussein, who began working with the news agency in 2004, has been in U.S. military custody in Iraq since he was detained in April 2006 in the city of Ramadi.

The AP has called for the immediate release of the photographer, who was part of an AP photo team that won a Pulitzer prize in 2005.

Since Hussein's arrest, "this case has been reviewed a number of times by the standing board that does periodic reviews of individuals in detention," U.S. military spokesman Maj.-Gen. Kevin Bergner told a news conference. "In each instance the recommendation was to continue detention because of the continued security threat that he represented."

Bergner declined to discuss the evidence against Hussein, who took pictures for the AP in western Anbar province, which until a tribal security push began last year was the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon called Hussein a "terrorist media operative who infiltrated the AP." Berger said only that Hussein had been detained "as a result of his interactions with insurgent activities."

The military has said in the past that Hussein was detained for possessing materials used to make roadside bombs, insurgent propaganda, and a surveillance photo of a coalition installation.

AP investigation found nothing
AP president and chief executive officer Tom Curley said this week in a statement: "While we are hopeful that there could be some resolution to Bilal Hussein's long detention, we have grave concerns that his rights under the law continue to be ignored and even abused."

The AP's own intensive investigations of the case — conducted by a former federal prosecutor, Paul Gardephe — have found no support for allegations that he was anything other than a working journalist in a war zone.

Military officials are expected to file a formal complaint against Hussein in Iraq's Central Criminal Court.

"We are now at a point where that case is to be conveyed ... for judicial consideration," Bergner said.

A public affairs officer notified the AP last weekend that the military intended to submit a complaint against Hussein that would bring the case into the Iraqi justice system as early as Nov. 29.

Hussein, 36, is just one of a number of Iraqi journalists who have been held by the U.S. military without being charged. Reuters journalists have also been detained by the U.S. military for months and later released without charges.

Iraqi journalists and international advocacy groups warned Tuesday that prosecuting a news photographer is a worrisome precedent that threatens media freedom in the region.

"The judicial vagueness surrounding this case is disturbing and unacceptable," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "Hussein's lawyers will have to appear in court without being able to prepare their client's defense as the U.S. authorities refuse to say in advance what evidence they have."

Under Iraqi codes, an investigative magistrate will decide whether there are grounds to try Hussein, who was seized in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on April 12, 2006.

Journalists in a tough spot
The case illustrates one of the many difficulties facing Iraqi journalists.

Many of them have been targeted by extremist death squads because of their reporting. But U.S. troops are suspicious of many Iraqi journalists because insurgent groups use their own propagandists to film and record attacks on U.S. troops for extremist Web sites.

Aziz Rahim, a director of political programs for Iraqi state television, called Hussein's lengthy detention without charges "unacceptable" and urged U.S. authorities to release and compensate him.

"Any accusation against a journalist should be backed up by concrete and clear evidence, but Bilal was detained for a very long time without seeing such evidence," Rahim said. "Such practices should be stopped."

The head of the news department at the independent Al-Sumariya television station said the case shows that rules and procedures must be established to protect journalists.

"We and Bilal are paying the price of the absence of effective, real regulations to protect the journalists in Iraq, and this encourages U.S. forces and the government to harass the journalists," Nabil Jassim said. "Such acts might be meant to intimidate the journalists whose job is to make good contacts in order to convey the truth to the world."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also expressed deep concern about the case, noting the military has made shifting accusations against Hussein and "has yet to produce evidence of criminal wrongdoing."

CPJ's Mideast program coordinator Joel Campagna said dozens of journalists have been detained by the U.S. military since the war began in March 2003 — most held for a few hours or days.

There have been eight cases of "long-term open-ended detentions" of journalists in Iraq and "in all of those cases, with the exception of Bilal Hussein, the journalists have been released without any charges being substantiated against them," Campagna said.

"Our call throughout has been, if he has committed a recognizable criminal offense then he should be charged, given due process, and given a fair and transparent trial," he said.

Campagna called Hussein's case a troubling example to the rest of the region where the U.S. has said it would like to support democracy and the rule of law.

"Governments are increasingly using these detentions as a way to justify their own repression of their media," he said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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