Iraqi journalists and international advocacy groups warned Tuesday that prosecuting an Associated Press photographer held for more than 19 months without charge is a worrisome precedent that threatens media freedom in the region.
The Pentagon also raised the possibility that Bilal Hussein, who was part of the AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo team in 2005, could continue to be held even if the Iraqi court acquits him.
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.
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.
Military officials have alleged that Hussein, 36, had links to terrorist groups but are refusing to disclose what evidence or which accusations would be presented.
AP: Allegations unfounded
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.
"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."
The U.S. interprets the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes the Iraq mission as giving the coalition broad powers to detain anyone believed to pose a security threat.
A Pentagon official said this provision could allow U.S. forces to continue to hold Hussein, or any other detainee, regardless of the decision of an Iraqi court.
"I think there is still a provision, should it be determined that he still poses a threat, that he can be held as a security detainee ... even though he was found to be not guilty for criminal acts by a court," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
"Provisions allow for somebody to be held as a security detainee if it's determined that they continue to be a threat to coalition forces or to the Iraqi people," he added.
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.
Military cites ‘new evidence’
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the decision to bring charges now was made because of "new evidence." But he would not elaborate, saying the information would remain withheld until a formal complaint is filed with Iraqi authorities.
Morrell said the military has "convincing and irrefutable evidence that Bilal Hussein is a threat to stability and security in Iraq as a link to insurgent activity" and called Hussein "a terrorist operative who infiltrated the AP."
Previously, the military has outlined a host of possible lines of investigation, including claims that Hussein offered to provide false identification to a sniper seeking to evade U.S.-led forces and that Hussein took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent blasts.
The AP inquiry found no support for either of those claims.