The U.S. military arrested Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein on April 12, 2006, saying that he's a security threat. For the past 19 months, Hussein has been imprisoned without any formal charges. This week, the military announced plans to submit a complaint against him through the Iraqi justice system.
Paul Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor and lawyer hired by the AP to represent Hussein, said that it's still unclear why exactly his client was arrested. No formal charges have been made, he said, only a number of unsubstantiated allegations.
"There have been assertions that he is too close with the insurgents, that he is associated with the insurgents — it's all very vague," Gardephe said.
The military has said it will not disclose the contents of the complaint to anyone ahead of submitting it to the Iraqi court.
If Hussein is charged under the anti-terrorism law, the only possible penalty is death, according to Gardephe.
Hussein rose to prominence as a photographer, thanks to intimate images of insurgent activity in Fallujah. One of his photographs — an image of four insurgents engaged in battle — was included in a package of 20 AP photographs that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography.
"He was hidden in a furniture store and shot it very quickly," Gardephe said.
"Photojournalists in a war setting are in a very difficult position. They are viewed with suspicion by both sides."
Numerous local Iraqi photographers have been arrested by the U.S. military. "There was nothing unusual about his arrest. The only thing unusual is the period of this incarceration," Gardephe said.
The Iraqi government will be the "referring plaintiff" and present the evidence to the judge, according to Navy Rear Admiral Greg Smith. The judge will, in turn, decide what charges to pursue in the Iraqi court, while the U.S. military will participate as the "prosecution team."
"An Iraqi court will hear the case of an Iraqi citizen.... Information will be presented to that judge and the judge will make a determination whether sufficient evidence exists to file charges against Hussein. From that point on, the courts will take the matter into its own hands and deal with the situation," Smith explained.
Hussein's photographs, including the one that won a Pulitzer, could be submitted as evidence, Smith said. "They show that he was associating with these events."
"We need that side of the story," said photographer Ashley Gilbertson, whose photographs of Iraq — many of which have appeared in the New York Times — have tended to focus on civilians and U.S. troops.
Finding a way to get close, while still staying removed, he says, "is one of the biggest challenges of being a photographer in Iraq."
"With U.S. military, I try to not be involved and try to be as neutral as possible. I 'd hope that would be exactly the same [for Hussein]," Gilbertson said.
The U.S. military has said that it could submit the formal complaint as soon as Nov. 29.
AP Chief Defends Detained Iraqi Photographer
Associated Press CEO Tom Curley has strongly criticized the U.S. military for pressing a case against one of its Iraqi photographers who has been detained without charge since April 2006.
The U.S. military notified the AP earlier this month that it intended to submit a written complaint against Bilal Hussein that would bring the case into the Iraqi justice system as early as Nov. 29. Military officials have refused to disclose the content of the complaint to the AP, despite repeated requests.
"In the 19 months since he was picked up, Bilal has not been charged with any crime, although the military has sent out a flurry of ever-changing claims. Every claim we've checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance," Curley wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.
Hussein's lawyer will enter the case "blind," with no idea of the evidence or charges, Curley wrote.
Hussein, a 36-year-old native of Fallujah, was part of the AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo team in 2005. He was detained in Ramadi on April 12, 2006. The military has alleged that he had links to terrorist groups but the AP said its own investigations have found no support for allegations that Hussein was anything other than a working journalist in a war zone.
"We believe Bilal's crime was taking photographs the U.S. government did not want its citizens to see. That he was part of a team of AP photographers who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq may have made Bilal even more of a marked man," Curley said.
U.S. officials have asserted that Hussein offered to provide false identification to a sniper seeking to evade U.S.-led forces, that he possessed bomb-making equipment, and that he took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent blasts. The AP has found no corroboration of the accusations.
An American military spokesman in Iraq denied Saturday that the U.S. was bringing charges against Hussein, saying instead that it was merely presenting evidence to the Iraqis.
"It's not like our system," Maj. Bradford Leighton said. "The evidence is presented to a judge and the judge makes the decision whether the case goes forward."
Curley said the military has refused to answer questions from Hussein's attorney, former federal prosecutor Paul Gardephe, since announcing its intentions to seek a case against him.
He also said Gardephe learned that Hussein had been interrogated recently for the first time in over 16 months, without his lawyer present, presumably to gain evidence to be used against him in the upcoming trial.