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U.S. holds Iraqi journalist for 5 months

By ALAN J. MCCOMBS, UPI Correspondent   |   Sept. 20, 2006 at 7:06 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- A Pulitzer Prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist has been held by the U.S. military for five months without charge or trial on suspicion of collaborating with insurgents.

Bilal Hussein, who works for The Associated Press, was taken into custody by U.S. forces in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi on the morning of April 12. He is believed to be held at Camp Cropper. Hussein, a native of Fallujah, has worked for the wire service since 2004, and his photographs were part of an AP package that won a Pulitzer last year.

"There's no evidence that he collaborated with insurgent activity, collaborating being providing material assistance," Frank Smyth, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, told United Press International. "Journalists can have contacts with the other side and that can't be a crime."

Hussein's plight highlights the fact that U.S. forces regularly detain those suspected of insurgent activity for months at a time, often without charge or trial and without providing relatives or lawyers with any evidence of their culpability. Where evidence is presented, it sometimes turns out to be flimsy or inaccurate.

"He was doing his job when he was arrested as far as we know," AP spokeswoman Linda Wagner said." We haven't seen anything ... which we can verify to the contrary."

She said Hussein had protested his innocence, and that The AP had spent the five months since his arrest negotiating with the U.S. military in an effort to get him charged or released. An investigation by the company found only appropriate contact with insurgents for a journalist, Wagner said.

"We did look into some of the allegations that the military presented to us and found that they did not stand up to scrutiny," she added, giving as an example allegations that Hussein had been involved in the kidnapping of two Arab journalists. AP investigators tracked down the two men, who said they had been helped -- not betrayed -- by Hussein.

"They said the multinational forces had never contacted them (about the kidnapping)," said Wagner.

Since his arrest, Hussein has been in contact with the company and with attorneys Scott Horton and Badie Izzat.

Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter scholar for journalism values at the Poynter Institute, cautioned that while local employees are essential to any international news organization, their employment -- especially in war zones -- raises issues in terms of training in the ethics and techniques of journalism, and the need for oversight.

"It's not unusual and sometimes necessary to get individuals who have local knowledge, essential language skills and the ways and know how to access certain stories," Steele told UPI. "Oversight needs to be a lot more vigorous when the news reporter or starter came from a less traditional route."

Hussein joins the estimated 14,000 people currently believed to be in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such "security detainees," as the military calls them, are held pursuant to the mandate of U.S. forces as an occupying power under the Geneva Convention.

They are distinct from -- and held under different legal authorities than -- the detainees the United States classifies as "unlawful combatants," in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

While the administration has released information on the 400 or so held there, information on those detained in Iraq and Afghanistan remains hard to come by, Gabor Rona, international legal director of Human Rights First, said.

"I can tell you that people are detained for a long time and that if they are released it's not because they receive a hearing but ... at the whim of the detaining officer," Rona said.

The U.S. treatment of those held both in Guantanamo has drawn international criticism and questioning of the U.S. role as a human rights leader.

Seventy-eight percent of Germans and 56 percent of the British public felt the U.S. was doing a bad job advancing human rights across the world, according to a study released in July by the worldpublicopinion.org, a research institute based in Washington D.C. A similar public opinion survey by the U.S. Information Agency in 1998 found that 24 percent of Germans and 22 percent of the British public felt the U.S. was doing a bad job advancing human rights in the world.

Much of the controversy surrounding the U.S. handling of detainees and unlawful combatant focuses on the U.S. interpretation of the Third Geneva Convention, which deals with the detainment of enemy soldiers during war time, and the Fourth Geneva conventions, which address treatment of civilians during war time.

The past two weeks have seen intense debate in the U.S. capital as Congress has risen in opposition to the Bush administration's plan to clarify its obligations under the Geneva conventions which has been seen by some as an attempt to limit the U.S. obligation under the multinational treaty.

The administrations efforts caused Colin Powell, former Bush Secretary of State and a retired army officer, to make a rare public sign of opposition to the administration policies when he sent a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) who has been working with other senators to hold the U.S. government to full compliance under the Geneva Conventions.

"The world is about to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine the Common Article 3 would add to these doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk," Colin Powell said, in the letter.

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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