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U.S. holds foreign journalists without bringing charges

BAGHDAD — The soldiers came at 1:30 a.m, rousing family members who were sleeping on the roof to escape the late-summer heat.

They broke down the front door. Accompanied by dogs, American and Iraqi troops burst into the Jassam family home south of Baghdad in the town of Mahmoudiyah.

"Where is the journalist Ibrahim?" one of the Iraqi soldiers barked at grandparents, children and grandchildren as they staggered blearily down the stairs.

Ibrahim Jassam, a cameraman and photographer for the Reuters news agency, stepped forward, one of this brothers recalled. "Take me if you want me, but please leave my brothers."

The soldiers rifled through the house, confiscating his computer hard disk and cameras. And then they led him away, handcuffed and blindfolded.

That was Sept. 2. Jassam, 31, has been in U.S. custody since. His case represents the latest in a dozen the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has documented since 2001.

No formal accusations have been made against Jassam, and an Iraqi court ordered in November that he be released for lack of evidence. But the U.S. military continues to hold him, citing intelligence that he is "a high security threat," according to Maj. Neal Fisher, spokesman for detainee affairs.

The Obama administration has harshly criticized Iran for its imprisonment of Roxana Saberi, an American-Iranian journalist who was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison before being freed May 11. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Iran's treatment of Saberi as "nontransparent, unpredictable and arbitrary."

The United States also has called upon North Korea to expedite the trial of two U.S. journalists held there on spying charges.

No convictions

Yet the United States routinely has used the arbitrary powers it assumed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to hold without charge journalists who were detained in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

None has been convicted of any charge, said Joel Simon, executive director of the committee, undermining the standing of the United States when it comes to criticizing other countries on issues of media freedom.

"The U.S. has a record of holding journalists for long periods of time without due process and without explanation," he said. "Its standing would be improved if it addressed this issue."

Reuters has said there is no evidence against Jassam, and has expressed disappointment with his detention.

Sami Haj, a cameraman for the Al-Jazeera TV network, was detained by Pakistani authorities as he tried to cross into Afghanistan in 2001 to cover the offensive against the Taliban, and turned over to the U.S. military. U.S. officials held him for six years at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and accused him of being a courier for militant Islamic organizations, but never charged him. He was released a year ago.

In Iraq, Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was held for two years without trial before he was released in April on the orders of an Iraqi judge under the terms of an Iraqi amnesty law. Although the U.S. military maintained that Hussein had links with insurgents, AP insisted that the allegations were based on nothing more than the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of insurgents that he had taken on the streets of Ramadi.

Jassam is the only Iraqi journalist still in U.S. custody, the last to be detained under wartime rules in force before a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement signed in December. Under that accord, U.S. forces are required to obtain a warrant before they can arrest an Iraqi citizen.

Wartime rules

Jassam was detained without a warrant "as the result of his activity with a known insurgent organization," Fisher said.

No evidence against Jassam was presented at his court hearing in November because he received a court date before military intelligence against him could be verified, Fisher said.

Under the wartime rules at the time, he said, "There was no requirement to link the military intelligence with rule of law type of evidentiary procedures." It was while Jassam was being processed for release after the November hearing that fresh evidence came to light that suggested he was a "high security threat," Fisher said.

Simon said it is possible for someone to use the cover of journalism to conduct other activities.

"No one is suggesting that journalists should have a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said. "But if you accuse someone of something there needs to be a fair legal process. That's what we said in the Roxana Saberi case, and that's what we say in the Ibrahim Jassam case."

U.S. holds foreign journalists without bringing charges 05/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 9:24pm]
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