AP Photographer Bilal Hussein has been in American detention since April 2006. As the second anniversary of his captivity approaches, Bilal has achieved a major breakthrough. Yesterday in Baghdad, an Iraqi Judicial Commission reviewing his case took ten days to reach a conclusion: No basis existed for the terrorism-related charges which had been brought against him. The conclusion was a sweeping repudiation of accusations U.S. military figures have brought against him, backed by no evidence, but by a handful of strangely motivated American wingnut bloggers.
Other than the terrorism charges, the military had questioned the photographer’s presence on the scene following the abduction and killing of an Italian, Salvatore Santoro. I worked as Bilal Hussein’s counsel in 2006, and during this time I conducted a comprehensive review of the very vague allegations surrounding Santoro’s death, reviewing the documentary evidence with experts and interviewing the available witnesses. The AP photographer had been stopped with others at a check point and asked to take “trophy photos” of Santoro, who had been killed earlier in the day. A study of the photos and examination of other witnesses bore out the account, and military investigators also acknowledged off the record that there was no real basis for charges. But they continued to raise them nonetheless — apparently because they were under relentless pressure to come up with some charges.
U.S. military authorities in Baghdad could of course recognize the Judicial Commission determination and release Bilal. Notwithstanding vaguely positive statements from Bush Administration figures about the Iraqi courts and judicial system, their private remarks are far more negative. I recall from conversations with General Gardner, who was charged with detainee affairs in 2006, that in his view the United States was under no obligation to respect the decisions and directions of the Iraqi Courts. Notwithstanding that statement, however, he ordered the release of CBS cameraman Abdul Amir Younis Hussein following his exoneration in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.
Yesterday’s decision in any event may put the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photojournalist one step closer to freedom.