CPJ writes to Rumsfeld over Iraq detention

November 6 , 2006

Donald H. Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defense
The Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20301

Via facsimile: (703) 697-9080

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:

I am writing as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists to express the organization’s deep concern about the case of Bilal Hussein, a freelance photographer working for The Associated Press, who has been held without charge by the U.S. military for nearly seven months.

An Iraqi citizen, Hussein has worked as a freelance photographer for The Associated Press in the volatile towns of Ramadi and Fallujah during the last two years. His photographs documenting violence there helped earn the AP a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005.

U.S. forces detained Hussein on April 12 and have held him for “imperative reasons of security.” However, he has not been tried or even charged with a crime, nor has the military disclosed any evidence against him of criminal wrongdoing.

In a September 28 letter to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dorrance Smith, I requested information about the legal process involved in Hussein’s case, the basis for his ongoing detention, and whether the military intends to charge him with a crime. In an October 5 response, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman provided information on the general procedures for Hussein’s detention but gave no specifics about the basis for his detention or whether the military would charge him with an offense.

Thus far, U.S. officials have put forward vague accusations against Hussein. They have alleged that he has close ties to Iraqi insurgents. In an e-mail to AP international editor John Daniszewski in May, Army Maj. Gen. John Gardner, who oversees all coalition detainees in Iraq, said Hussein had been “afforded access to insurgent activities outside the normal scope afforded to journalists conducting legitimate activities.”

According to the AP, one of the most specific allegations cited by U.S. officials–that Hussein was involved in the kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi by Iraqi insurgents–was discredited after the AP investigated the claim. The two abducted journalists in question had never implicated Hussein in the kidnapping, but instead had singled him out for praise for his assistance when they were released, Daniszewski said recently. The military’s only evidence to support this claim appears to be photographs of the released journalists found in Hussein’s camera.

Daniszewski remarked that in light of the absence of evidence against Hussein, “[W]e at the AP have come more and more to believe that the real reason he was arrested is because of his pictures. They were not welcome. And by arresting him, the possibility of more unwelcome images from his native Fallujah and Ramadi have been blocked.”

Irrespective of the motivation for his detention, detaining a journalist for seven months without allowing minimum due process represents an unacceptable infringement on the ability of the press to carry out its work and is openly at odds with the message of democracy and respect for the rule of law that U.S. officials have publicly espoused in Iraq.

Regrettably, Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists–mostly Iraqis–have been detained by U.S. troops in the course of their work. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In each of these cases, the journalists were eventually released without any charges ever being substantiated against them.
In March, U.S. military officials in Baghdad and Washington outlined a new policy they said would avert the long-term detentions of journalists held without charge. On March 23, Maj. Gen. Gardner told Reuters in Baghdad that the U.S. military had established a new goal of reviewing cases of detained journalists within 36 hours. “Once a journalist is detained,” Gardner said, “it comes to me.” The change, he said, was designed to ensure that “we don’t hold someone for six or eight months.” The next day, on March 24, Pentagon spokesman Whitman told CPJ in Washington: “The intent is to bring better visibility and quicker attention to the [U.S. military] leadership when a journalist is detained.”
While these procedures were put in place to streamline the review process, CPJ believes Bilal Hussein has been denied due process. He should either be charged with a crime in a court of law and given a fair trial or released at once.

I respectfully urge you to personally look into this matter to ensure that justice is done.


Paul E. Steiger