Secret hearing for AP photographer in Iraq

New York, December 10, 2007—The Committee Protect Journalists is deeply concerned that the criminal hearing for an Associated Press photographer accused of collaborating with Iraqi insurgents is being held in secret.

On Sunday, an Iraqi court convened the first hearing in the case of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the U.S. military without charge for nearly 20 months. During the seven-hour hearing, Hussein was not charged with a crime, The Associated Press reported, however little more is known because Iraqi magistrate Dhia al-Kinani ordered that details of the hearing be kept secret.

“After almost 20 months in detention, Bilal Hussein finally had his day in court,” said CPJ Senior Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna. “But the proceedings are still shrouded in secrecy, raising fears that he will not get a fair trial. Hussein must have an open hearing, and his lawyers must be given access to all evidence against him.”

The AP said the hearing was the first time Hussein or his lawyers had seen information the U.S. military had gathered against Hussein since his detention last year.  Hussein’s lawyer, Paul Gardephe, said he was allowed access to some materials but could not take copies from the hearing to prepare his defense, nor could he give details of the hearing because of the judge’s gag order, the AP reported.

“There is still no formal charge against Bilal, and The Associated Press continues to believe that Bilal Hussein was a photojournalist working in a war zone and that claims that he is involved with insurgent activities are false,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said in a statement received by CPJ. “Because the judge ordered that the proceedings today be kept secret, we are restricted from saying anything further.”

Gardephe also complained of the military’s refusal to allow him to meet privately with his client—without the presence of military officials—since the U.S. military referred Hussein’s case to the Iraqi justice system late last month.

Hussein, an Iraqi citizen who worked as a freelance photographer for the AP in the volatile cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, helped the news agency earn a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005. He was taken by U.S. forces on April 12, 2006, in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and held in a U.S. prison in Iraq for “imperative reasons of security.”

Since Hussein’s detention, U.S. officials have made multiple allegations against the journalist. After his detention, for example, U.S. military officials accused Hussein of having prior knowledge of insurgent attacks on U.S. forces and photographing those attacks. They have never substantiated the accusation. Another allegation was that Hussein was involved in the Iraqi insurgent kidnapping of two Arab journalists in Ramadi—a claim the AP investigated and discredited. The two abducted journalists had actually praised Hussein for his assistance when they were released. The military’s only evidence supporting its claim appeared to be images of the released journalists that were found in Hussein’s camera, the AP said.

The AP’s own investigation has found these and other accusations—such as providing false identification to insurgents and having bomb-making materials in his home—to have no substance and believes Hussein is being held because of his work in Anbar province.

Late last month, the U.S. military decided to refer Hussein’s case to the Iraqi justice system for possible prosecution because of his alleged links to Iraqi insurgents. U.S. officials have not specified what the charges might be, but have claimed they have “new evidence” implicating the journalist.

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, according to CPJ research. 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.