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US Forces May Soon Release Iraqi AP Photographer Held for Two Years

April 11 2008--(New York) US forces should immediately release Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein -- detained nearly two years ago -- in accordance with an Iraqi judicial ruling ordering a halt to legal proceedings against him, Human Rights Watch said today. "The US military held Bilal Hussein for nearly two years without charging, then transferred him to the Iraqi justice system, which apparently sees no reason to detain him," said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "It's time to set him free."

Hussein, an Iraqi national, was detained by US forces in Ramadi on April 12, 2006. According to AP, the US military subsequently accused him of possessing bomb-making materials, working with insurgents, and offering to provide a forged ID to a fugitive from US forces. No formal charge was ever brought against Hussein between his detention two years ago and the transfer of his case to Iraq's Central Criminal Court (CCCI) in December 2007, nor did Hussein or his lawyers have access to evidence against him.

AP said its internal investigation of Hussein's activities and acquaintances revealed nothing to suggest he was involved in activities beyond the scope of his professional duties.

On December 9, 2007, Hussein had a closed investigative hearing in the CCCI, at which defense lawyers hired by AP were allowed to examine some of the evidence against him. AP said its lawyers were not allowed to make copies of evidence to prepare his defense and that the presiding judge forbade participants in the hearing from discussing its proceedings and any evidence presented. Hussein did not have a trial hearing, which would have been the CCCI's next step. On April 9, AP reported it had received a ruling from a judicial panel implementing Iraq's new amnesty legislation ordering that legal proceedings against Hussein cease and that he be released unless further cases are pending.

The ruling reportedly makes reference to the terms of a limited amnesty that Iraq's parliament passed in February 2008. While excluding a broad range of offenses, the amnesty benefits, among others, Iraqis who have spent lengthy periods in detention without referral to an investigative magistrate or trial. It is not clear which provisions of the amnesty would apply to Hussein. AP reported on April 9 that the ruling ordering Hussein's release may not have addressed an allegation that Hussein had contacts with the kidnappers of an Italian citizen, whose body Hussein photographed in 2004. The report did not specify whether the ruling stated that this allegation could provide grounds for further detention.

AP quoted a Pentagon spokesman on April 9 as saying a decision on releasing Hussein would be based on assessment of his status as a threat.

Several Iraqi journalists working for international media organizations in Iraq, particularly in areas that saw clashes between US forces and insurgents, have been detained for lengthy periods of time by US forces, including a CBS cameraman held for a year after being wounded while filming clashes in Mosul, and a Reuters cameraman detained in the northern city Tell Afar and held for nearly eight months without charges before his release.