Bhasin Guest Editorial: Bilal Hussein and Freedom in Iraq

Fantasizing Democratic Freedoms in Iraq

Madhavi Bhasin

Associated Press (AP) photographer Bilal Hussein has been held for two year on being suspected of helping Iraqi insurgents, but without being formally charged by the US military. On April 9, 2008 the Iraqi judges dismissed the accusations against him and ordered his release under the Amnesty Law. But he was not released immediately. In Iraq, there reigns a power superior to the country’s legislature, executive and judiciary. It’s the multinational force. Bilal’s release was pending following the final review of the order by the Multinational Force in Iraq. The technical explanation provided for the decision is that judgment referred to only one count of the charges imposed on Bilal and his release is contingent upon being acquitted on all counts. Moreover the Amnesty law cannot compel the release of detainees in US detention facilities and the US is authorized by the UN to detain anyone considered to be a security risk. On April 14, 2008 the US military finally ordered the release of Bilal Hussein.

Courtesy AP

Bilal was detained after he provided shelter to some strangers following a bomb explosion in Falluja. The ubiquitous US intelligence and military capabilities charged Bilal on several counts: possession of bomb making material, conspiring with Iraqi insurgents in photographing attacks against the US military in Iraq, forging identification cards for terrorists, contacts with kidnappers of Italian citizen Salvatore Santoro, who was later killed.

The AP has waged a two year long campaign seeking the release of Bilal. Bilal was a shopkeeper in Falluja hired for his local knowledge and trained in photography by the AP. He was a member of the AP team honored with the Pultizer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2005. The fact that Bilal photographed some astounding incidents of violence in Iraq made him both a suspect and a prized photographer. His prompt presence at sites of violence created an impression that he had prior knowledge of the attacks.

The incident of Bilal Hussein is not an exception, but follows a common trend in Iraq. Iraqi cameraman Abdul Amir Younis Hussein working for the CBS was shot in the thigh and arrested by the US military while recovering in the hospital in 2005. The story of Younis Hussein is much the same. No evidence against him was made public and five months later the Iraqi criminal authorities refused to prosecute him for the lack of evidence.

Three journalists of the Reuters News Agency, Cameraman Salem Ureibi, Freelance TV journalist Ahmad Mohammad Hussein al-Badrani and their driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani were released after being held for three days without charge. The three were also subjected to sexually degrading treatment though the US military refutes the charges of any abuse during detention. Yasser Sahilee, special correspondent for Knight Rider, who had reported on the extra-judicial killings by US-backed Iraqi Wolf Brigade, was shot in the head while approaching a checkpoint. The story has expanded dimensions as well. In 2003 the premises of Al-Mustaqilla (The Independent) was ransacked by the Iraqi and US forces and the newspaper Editor Abdul Sattar Salan was arrested.

Though Bilal Hussein will be allowed to walk free in two days (April, 16, 2008) these incidents raise several questions- What kind of democratic freedoms does the Bush administration aspire to provide to the Iraqi people after removing an autocratic regime? Is the right to be charged and face trail and to be considered innocent until proved guilty reserved for the more fortunate US citizens? Does the US military hold more authority in Iraq than the Iraqi judicial process? According to the US what distinguishes professional journalists from journalists with terrorist links? Who will repay for the psychological agony caused to the individuals involved and their families?

Operation Iraqi Freedom aimed at locating and destroying the weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein and providing the Iraqi people the opportunity to enjoy democratic freedoms. Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Where are the democratic freedoms?

Madhavi Bhasin
Research Fellow
Jadavpur University
Kolkata, India

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