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Iraqi Panel Orders U.S. to Release AP Photographer

Demonstrators hold a banner with the picture of AP's arrested photographer Bilal Hussein on the fifth anniversary of the death of Spanish television cameraman Jose Couso in front of Madrid's U.S. embassy April 8, 2008.
(REUTERS/Andrea Comas)

BAGHDAD - An Iraqi judicial panel dismissed the last remaining criminal allegation against an Associated Press photographer on Sunday and ordered him freed from U.S. military custody, the news agency reported.

The U.S. military has accused Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi, of working with insurgents in Iraq and held him without charge for two years. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer was seized in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, and is being held in Baghdad.

On Thursday, the U.S. military said it would not free Hussein unless its own review board approved, after the Iraqi panel dismissed separate terrorism-related accusations against Hussein early last week and ordered him released.

The AP said the panel of three judges and a prosecutor of the Iraqi Federal Appeals Court granted amnesty on Sunday to Hussein, 36, saying there should be no further action on allegations he might have had improper contact with insurgents who killed an Italian in Iraq. In December 2004, Hussein and two other journalists were stopped by armed men and taken at gunpoint to photograph the corpse, propped up with armed insurgents standing over it, the news agency said in a report from Baghdad.

The panel ordered a "halt to all legal proceedings" and said Hussein should be "released immediately" unless he is wanted in connection with something else, the agency added.

"We are grateful for the decision of the Amnesty Council and the Iraqi judges," AP President Tom Curley said. "We look forward to Bilal's safe return to his family and to AP."

AP has repeatedly called for the release of Hussein, who was part of its photo team that won a Pulitzer prize in 2005.

In November, U.S. military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner said Hussein's case had been reviewed several times by a board that periodically reviews the files of detainees. Hussein was still deemed a "security threat", he said at the time.

Many of the 23,000 detainees in U.S. military custody in Iraq have not been charged but remain in jail because they are deemed a security risk.

Hussein is one of several Iraqi journalists who have been held by the U.S. military without being charged. Reuters journalists have also been detained by the U.S. military for months and later released without charges.