Monday, September 25, 2006

Bob Herbert: No Due Process

Until five months ago, Bilal Hussein was part of a team of Associated Press photographers that had won a Pulitzer Prize for photos documenting the fighting and carnage in Iraq.
Now he’s a prisoner, having been seized by the U.S. government.

You might ask: What’s he been charged with?

The answer: Nothing.

There was a flurry of interest last week in the case of Maher Arar, a terror suspect who was shipped to Syria and tortured before it was learned that, alas, he was not a terrorist.

Mr. Hussein got a little news coverage last week, as well.

People who still think there is a place in this world for fairness, justice and due process are calling on the authorities to either charge him with a crime or release him.

Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi hired by The A.P., was taken into custody by U.S. forces in Ramadi last April 12. As in many similar cases, U.S. officials have been saying — without disclosing evidence to back up their comments — that he had improper ties to the insurgents.

But neither the Americans nor the Iraqis have officially charged Mr. Hussein with anything.

Scott Horton, a prominent New York lawyer called in by The A.P. to work on the case, said:

“The administration always starts with a broad-brush tarring of these individuals. You’ll have officials saying: ‘Oh, they’re bad dudes. They’re evil. We have evidence we can’t show you that would demonstrate just how terrible these people are.’

“Well, sometimes they do. But very frequently, alarmingly frequently, they don’t.”

Mr. Hussein’s case closely resembles that of Abdul Ameer Hussein, a cameraman hired by CBS News who was wounded while covering an attack on an American convoy in Mosul on April 5, 2005. He was shot by a U.S. soldier, a sniper who was more than 200 yards away.

Mr. Hussein was taken to a hospital. His camera and videotapes were seized. And despite his CBS press credentials, which were checked out and found to be legitimate, he was arrested by U.S. authorities and imprisoned.

Much of his time over the course of the next year was spent in solitary confinement at the Abu Ghraib prison, where he was subjected to coercive interrogation and other indignities.

For what?

American officials were telling reporters, without offering any evidence, that Mr. Hussein had been collaborating with insurgents. He hadn’t been.

It turned out he was completely innocent. In fact, he was a kind of timid guy who was less than thrilled about having a job that required him to shoot combat footage.

This is a spooky time in history. It’s one thing for tyrannical regimes like the old Soviet Union and Communist China to bulldoze the very idea of human rights and human decency by engaging in such atrocities as detention without trial, torture and other forms of state terror.

It’s something else completely when the United States, the greatest symbol of liberty that the world has ever known, begins to head down that hellish road.

Abdul Ameer Hussein ultimately was able to escape the clutches of the authorities because of the persistent legal effort pushed by CBS News on his behalf.

Scott Horton was part of that effort. A year after he was taken into custody, Mr. Hussein, manacled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, was walked into a Baghdad courtroom for a trial. It was quickly determined that the case against him was ludicrous.

“There was absolutely no evidence against this guy,” said Mr. Horton. “Even the attorney general of Iraq said there was no basis for proceeding against him.”

The case was dismissed.

Several Iraqi journalists working for international news organizations have been held without charge by American and Iraqi forces. The absence of concrete evidence in so many of the cases is disturbing, to say the least.

“I am absolutely convinced,” said Mr. Horton, “that the ton of bricks fell on these two guys — Bilal Hussein and Abdul Ameer Hussein — because they were working as professional journalists.

They were the eyes of the world, covering things that the Pentagon doesn’t want people in America to see.”

A legitimate news organization can’t help but experience a shudder at hearing that one of its employees may have been collaborating with the enemy.

It’s a chilling, devastating allegation. To make that charge recklessly is reprehensible.

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