The U.S. military is going to start a criminal case in an Iraqi court against an award-winning Associated Press photographer.
An AP attorney on Monday strongly protested the decision, calling the U.S. military plans a "sham of due process." The journalist, Bilal Hussein, has already been imprisoned without charges for more than 19 months.
A public affairs officer notified the AP on Sunday that the military intends to submit a written complaint against Hussein that would bring the case into the Iraqi justice system as early as Nov. 29. Under Iraqi codes, an investigative magistrate will decide whether there are grounds to try Hussein, 36, who was seized in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on April 12, 2006.
Dave Tomlin, associate general counsel for the AP, said the defense for Hussein is being forced to work "totally in the dark."
The military has not yet defined the specific charges against Hussein. Previously, the military has pointed to a range of suspicions that attempt to link him to insurgent activity.
The AP rejects all the allegations and contends it has been blocked by the military from mounting a wide-ranging defense for Hussein, who was part of the AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo team in 2005.
Soon after Hussein was taken into custody, the AP appealed to the U.S. military to either release him or bring the case to trial - saying there was no evidence to support his detention. However, Tomlin said that the military is now attempting to build a case based on "stale" evidence and testimony that has been discredited. He also noted that the U.S. military investigators who initially handled the case have left the country.
The AP says various accusations have been floated unofficially against Hussein and then apparently been withdrawn with little explanation.
Tomlin said the AP has faced chronic difficulties in meeting Hussein at the Camp Cropper detention facility in Baghdad and its own intensive investigations of the case - conducted by a former federal prosecutor, Paul Gardephe - have found no support for allegations that he was anything other than a working journalist in a war zone.
"While we are hopeful that there could be some resolution to Bilal Hussein's long detention, we have grave concerns that his rights under the law continue to be ignored and even abused," said AP President and CEO Tom Curley.
"The steps the U.S. military is now taking continue to deny Bilal his right to due process and, in turn, may deny him a chance at a fair trial. The treatment of Bilal represents a miscarriage of the very justice and rule of law that the United States is claiming to help Iraq achieve. At this point, we believe the correct recourse is the immediate release of Bilal."
Calls for his freedom have been backed by groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Tomlin said it remains unclear what accusations, evidence and possible witnesses will be presented by military prosecutors in Baghdad.
"They are telling us nothing ... We are operating totally in the dark," said Tomlin, who added that the military's unfair handling of the case is "playing with a man's future and maybe his life."
Although it is unclear what specific allegations may be presented against Hussein, convictions linked to aiding militants in Iraq could bring the death penalty, said Tomlin.
U.S. military officials in Iraq did not immediately respond to AP questions about what precise accusations are planned against Hussein.
Previously, the military has outlined a host of possible lines of investigation, including claims that Hussein offered to provide false identification to a sniper seeking to evade U.S.-led forces and that Hussein took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent blasts.
The AP 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.
Gardephe, now a New York-based attorney, said the AP has offered evidence to counter the allegations so far raised by the military. But, he noted, that it is possible the military could introduce new charges at the hearing that could include classified material.
"This makes it impossible to put together a defense," said Gardephe, who is leading the defense team and plans to arrive in Baghdad next week. "At the moment, it looks like we can do little more than show up ... and try to put together a defense during the proceedings."
One option, he said, is to contend that the Pentagon's handling of Hussein violated Iraqi legal tenets brought in by Washington after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Among the possible challenges: AP claims that Hussein was interrogated at Camp Cropper this year without legal counsel.
Hussein is one of the highest-profile Iraqi journalists inU.S. custody.
In April 2006 - just days before Hussein was detained - an Iraqi cameraman working for CBS News was acquitted of insurgent activity. Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein was held for about a year after being detained while filming the aftermath of a bombing in the northern city of Mosul.
Tomlin, however, said that freedom for Bilal Hussein, who is not related to the cameraman working for CBS, is not guaranteed even if the judge rejects the eventual U.S. charges. The military can indefinitely hold suspects considered security risks in Iraq.
"Even if he comes out the other side with an acquittal - as we certainly hope and trust that he will - there is not guarantee that he won't go right back into detention as a security risk."