Policy a Year Late for Cameraman

Apr 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The criminal trial of Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, who was arrested almost a year ago after being wounded in Mosul, Iraq, while working as a cameraman for CBS News, is set to begin Wednesday in Baghdad.

The charges against Mr. Hussein have not been made public. What is known is that whatever the charge, if convicted the penalty could be life imprisonment.

The U.S. military recently instituted a policy to lower the odds that journalists working in Iraq could be arrested and detained for extended stretches for doing their jobs and covering the violence in Iraq. But this new policy-wherein the U.S. military pledges to report and review within 36 hours the arrests of people identified as journalists-comes about a year too late to help Mr. Hussein.

The Iraqi, who is in his 20s, had been working for about three months as a cameraman for the CBS News bureau in Baghdad when he was injured April 5, 2005, by American forces returning small arms fire after a car bomb attack in Mosul.

The day Mr. Hussein was injured, U.S. military public affairs released a statement headlined: “One terrorist killed, reporter injured during attack.” The release said, “An individual appearing to have a weapon was standing near the terrorist and was shot and injured. This individual turned out to be a reporter who was pointing a video camera. The reporter was taken to a military hospital for treatment with minor wounds, and is expected to recover.”

Three days later another release from U.S. military public affairs came headlined: “Reporter detained for alleged insurgent activity.” It said the reporter was carrying CBS News press credentials. “Military officials detained this individual and are conducting an investigation into his previous activities as well as his alleged support of anti-Iraqi insurgency activities. The military has said that ‘There is probable cause to believe that (the detainee) posed an imperative threat to coalition forces. He is currently detained … and will be processed as any other security detainee.'”

Larry Doyle, the CBS bureau chief in Baghdad, told the Associated Press that he had received an e-mail from U.S. officials at the Abu Ghraib prison that Mr. Hussein “appeared to be instigating a crowd” in Mosul.

CBS News reported at the time that U.S. authorities claimed to have found tape in Mr. Hussein’s camera that led them to believe he may have had prior knowledge of certain attacks. CBS News made multiple unsuccessful requests for the camera Mr. Hussein was using at Mosul a year ago and for the videotape that was in it .

Mr. Hussein’s trial originally was scheduled for two weeks ago. CBS News claimed it was informed only 12 hours prior to that date that the trial had been scheduled. “That didn’t allow his American lawyer to get over there,” said Linda Mason, CBS News senior VP for standards and special projects. So the trial was rescheduled for this week.

The two-week delay allowed the American lawyer to return to Baghdad and meet once during the weekend of March 25 with Mr. Hussein.

New Review Process

That was just days after Maj. Gen. John Gardner, the commander of U.S. detention operations, announced the fast-forward review process that would include the opportunity for news organizations to speak on behalf of detained employees.

Asked why the new procedures couldn’t be applied to Mr. Hussein’s case-the longest such case of the seven detentions documented in the last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists-CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna said, “What the U.S. military would say is he is being given [due process], and he is going before an Iraqi criminal court, and the court will make its determination.”

However, Mr. Campagna said, “This guy was processed by the U.S. military months ago, referred to the Iraqis for prosecution and basically the Iraqi court said, ‘We have nothing to prosecute this guy on.’ Then he sort of reverted back to U.S. custody in sort of this legal limbo.”

There was no reply to a request for comment e-mailed to the U.S. Central Command public information officer assigned to the Hussein case.

Whether there is any reason to wonder if it also might be tinged with payback for CBS News’ role in exposing the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Ms. Mason won’t say and other U.S. TV news executives discount.

More than one news executive was reluctant to say much about his Iraqi employees out of fear for those employees’ security.

“It’s a real issue for them,” ABC Foreign News Director Chuck Lustig said. “I think there’s a concern among all of us that this has happened to an employee of CBS News.”

Mr. Campagna said the other seven detentions CPJ documented in Iraq in the last year had ended “without any charges being made or any sentencing or any affirmation of any misconduct.”

Mr. Hussein came recommended to CBS News by Iraqi stringers with whom the news organization had worked for years, CBS’s Ms. Mason said.

“We feel he was qualified to be a cameraman for us. However, we have always said that if the Iraqis or the U.S. military had something about him that indicates that he is an insurgent, we would like to know because we would like to change our vetting procedures,” she said. “All we’re asking is that he have a fair trial with due diligence and due process so we can all see the evidence one way or the other.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that on April 5 it’s resolved and we find out once and for all what the story is.”