NEW YORK, NY - The U.S. military has set December 9 as the date on which it will submit evidence against Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein to the Iraqi judiciary system, an American official said today.
The move would be the first legal step in initiating formal charges against photographer, who was seized in Ramadi on April 12, 2006. Hussein, 36, has been imprisoned without charge ever since.
Navy Captain Brian J. Bill informed Associated Press counsel Paul G. Gardephe of the December date in an eMail Thursday.
A public affairs officer had notified the AP last week that the military intended to submit a written complaint against Hussein as early as November 29. There was no explanation for the change in the date.
Under Iraqi law, an investigating judge will receive and review the evidence. The judge, whose role corresponds roughly to a grand jury, has the power to either dismiss the case or recommend it be referred to a three-judge panel for trial.
Throughout the more than 19 months of his captivity, the U.S. military has refused to specify what charges it might pursue against Hussein, who was part of the AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photography team in 2005.
But the military has pointed to a range of suspicions that attempt to link Hussein to insurgent activity, including claims that he offered to provide false identification to a sniper seeking to evade U.S.-led forces and took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent blasts.
The AP's own inquiry found no support for either of those claims. The bulk of the photographs Hussein provided the AP were not about insurgent activity; he detailed both the aftermath of attacks and the daily lives of Iraqis in the war zone. There was no evidence that any images were coordinated with the insurgents or showed the instant of an attack.
In a letter delivered this week to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, AP president and CEO Tom Curley expressed concern that Hussein's attorney had not been given enough time and information to prepare an adequate defense.
"While we are grateful that Mr. Hussein will finally have a chance to see and challenge the evidence against him, we are deeply concerned that U.S. military authorities are doing their best to make it difficult for his case to receive a fair hearing," Curley wrote.
Curley asked the prime minister to "take whatever steps you consider appropriate" to make sure that the proceedings "are conducted with the care and impartiality" that any of the 24,000 Iraqi citizens detained by the U.S. military had the right to expect from an Iraqi court.
"U.S. military attorneys have had 19 months to prepare for this important day ... Mr. Hussein's attorney, on the other hand, will have no idea which allegations and what evidence he must seek to overcome with arguments and evidence of his own."
The U.S. military insists that it is handling the case according to Iraqi law and authority granted under the U.N. Security Council resolution governing the coalition military presence in Iraq.
On Wednesday, the U.S. journalists' group Military Reporters & Editors released an open letter it sent to the Pentagon protesting the long confinement of Hussein without the bringing of any charges and calling on the U.S. government to "do the right thing and give Hussein his day in court."
"Bilal Hussein's imprisonment is contrary to every notion of justice, fair play and the U.S. Constitution, which every member of America's military swears to uphold and defend," the letter said.
"We at Military Reporters & Editors wonder how this incident has been allowed to go on for so long," the letter said. "We also wonder if it could happen to other Iraqi journalists who have risked their lives to tell America and the world about life in Iraq. Without their work we would know far less about the fighting there and how it affects both the millions of Iraqis and the thousands American troops, and for that matter, the world.
"We wonder if U.S. military authorities would show the same respect for American journalists in Iraq, or if one of us, too, could end up like Hussein."