Detention in the 21st Century

Once upon a time, detention meant little more than having to stay after school and clean the blackboard under the teacher’s watchful eye or stay in at recess while classmates cavorted on the playground. A great many who have experienced such punishment have no doubt felt wronged or singled out and chafed at the cruelty and injustice of it all. Consequently, at every opportunity, when the tyrannical teacher chanced to turn her back, a searing look of petulant resentment would be thrust between her shoulder blades. Soon enough, though, a reprieve would be granted, and all would be seemingly forgotten and forgiven. For, once upon a time, detention was but a brief slap on the wrist.

Nowadays, detention is a shackle upon the wrist that may endure for weeks, months, or even years—not for school children in America but for Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In many if not most cases, those in detention are never formally charged or given any real opportunity to have their day in court, often held indefinitely and subjected to harsh interrogation and treatment. Their captors call them “enemy combatants,� but they are prisoners of war. However vile or villainous some may be, they are deserving of the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions. They are not all terrorists. Some have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. They deserve justice—and reprieve.

Of the 13,000 or so detainees in Iraq, one is an Associated Press photographer named Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the U.S. military for some five months now. As of yet, there is no evidence that Mr. Hussein has done anything wrong and no sign that he will be freed. The AP is, therefore, speaking out:

U.S. holds AP photographer in Iraq 5 months

The U.S. military in Iraq has imprisoned an Associated Press photographer for five months, accusing him of being a security threat but never filing charges or permitting a public hearing.

Military officials said Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi citizen, was being held for “imperative reasons of security” under United Nations resolutions. AP executives said the news cooperative’s review of Hussein’s work did not find anything to indicate inappropriate contact with insurgents, and any evidence against him should be brought to the Iraqi criminal justice system.

Hussein, 35, is a native of Fallujah who began work for the AP in September 2004. He photographed events in Fallujah and Ramadi until he was detained on April 12 of this year.

“We want the rule of law to prevail. He either needs to be charged or released. Indefinite detention is not acceptable,” said Tom Curley, AP’s president and chief executive officer. “We’ve come to the conclusion that this is unacceptable under Iraqi law, or Geneva Conventions, or any military procedure.”

Hussein is one of an estimated 14,000 people detained by the U.S. military worldwide – 13,000 of them in Iraq. They are held in limbo where few are ever charged with a specific crime or given a chance before any court or tribunal to argue for their freedom.

In Hussein’s case, the military has not provided any concrete evidence to back up the vague allegations they have raised about him, Curley and other AP executives said.

The military said Hussein was captured with two insurgents, including Hamid Hamad Motib, an alleged leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. “He has close relationships with persons known to be responsible for kidnappings, smuggling, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and other attacks on coalition forces,” according to a May 7 e-mail from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jack Gardner, who oversees all coalition detainees in Iraq.

“The information available establishes that he has relationships with insurgents and is afforded access to insurgent activities outside the normal scope afforded to journalists conducting legitimate activities,” Gardner wrote to AP International Editor John Daniszewski.

Hussein proclaims his innocence, according to his Iraqi lawyer, Badie Arief Izzat, and believes he has been unfairly targeted because his photos from Ramadi and Fallujah were deemed unwelcome by the coalition forces.

That Hussein was captured at the same time as insurgents doesn’t make him one of them, said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor.

“Journalists have always had relationships with people that others might find unsavory,” she said. “We’re not in this to choose sides, we’re to report what’s going on from all sides.” [full text]