Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Panel Calls for Due Process for Journalists Held by U.S. Military

On a panel held yesterday in connection with World Press Freedom Day, representatives of two journalists held by the U.S. military called upon the U.S. to either charge them with crimes or release them. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein has been held in Iraq for a year, and Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for the Middle East television station Al-Jazeera, has been detained since late 2001 and is currently at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Neither have been provided an opportunity to prove their innocence in a court of law.

U.S. officials claim that because Hussein took photographs of explosions in Iraq, that he must have been at the locations ahead of time, and therefore complicit with the Iraqi insurgency. But Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the AP, said he was "simply the unlucky fellow who happened to be the photographer for the world's largest newsgathering organization in a difficult province." She called the U.S. claims against him a "rolling set of allegations that arise and then disappear without the benefit of a trial."

Similarly, Al-Hajj has faced varying allegations, but has been denied the opportunity to refute them because the U.S. government has never filed charges or presented evidence against him. He has been in custody since he was stopped at the Afghanistan border by Pakistani authorities in December 2001 and turned over to U.S. authorities six months later.

His attorney, Zachary Katznelson, pointed out that the evidence being used to justify al-Hajj's detention is classified, so neither the journalist, his lawyers, nor the public have been able to see it. In al-Hajj's ongoing interrogations at Guantanamo, U.S. officials have focused almost exclusively on obtaining intelligence regarding al-Jazeera and its staff. His interrogators have told him that he would be released if he provided information about the satellite network’s activities, an offer that al-Hajj has consistently refused. Al-Hajj, who has been force-fed while on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, appeared weak during a recent visit, the lawyer said.

Katznelson called upon the U.S. to make public the classified evidence that the U.S. says justifies his detention. "If there is any evidence, then let's see it," Katznelson said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which sponsored yesterday's panel at the National Press Club, details Al-Hajj's case in a 2006 report called, "The Enemy?"

In the report, CPJ notes that al-Hajj

has been held for nearly five years on the basis of secret evidence; he has not been convicted or even charged with a crime. Until this year—when an Associated Press lawsuit prompted the Pentagon to identify the detainees—the military would not acknowledge al-Haj was in custody. Al-Haj’s lawyer, who has been barred from attending his client’s hearings, has called the allegations baseless and the justice system at Guantanamo a sham.

“There is absolutely zero evidence that he has any history in terrorism at all,” said Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group, who took up al-Haj’s case in 2005. Stafford Smith contends that al-Haj’s continued detention is political, and the main focus of U.S. interrogators has not been al-Haj’s alleged terrorist activities but obtaining intelligence on Al-Jazeera and its staff.

CPJ also notes that the detentions of al-Hajj and Hussein are part of an ongoing pattern by the U.S. military to detain reporters without charges, in what could be seen as a concerted campaign of intimidation.

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident in Iraq. Over the last four years, dozens of journalists, mostly Iraqis, have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In all previous detentions journalists were released without charges ever being substantiated.

Even without the arbitrary detentions of journalists by the U.S. military, Iraq is already the most dangerous place in the world for reporters to work. Of the 56 confirmed deaths of journalists worldwide in 2006, CPJ notes that 32 were in Iraq.

The latest victim was Dmitry Chebotayev, a Russian photographer killed on Sunday in Baqouba. He was 29 years old.

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