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Iraqi Photographer Released After 17 Months

February 15, 2010

On February 10th, Iraqi freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam was finally released by US military forces after being detained for 17 months without charge.

Jassam, who regularly contributed photos and video to Reuters news agency, was detained in September 2008 during raid on his home in Mahmudiya, a town 30 miles south of Baghdad, an area which experienced high levels of insurgent activity at that time.

Press freedom organizations have been critical of the journalist’s captivity. Reporters Without Borders declared that Jassam’s release was “excellent news” but also stated that it was dissatisfied by the fact that the military did not give any reasons for his arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who have documented 14 cases where journalists have been held by US Forces for extended periods without charge, responded by calling on the US Government “to ensure that this release marks the end of its policy of open-ended detentions of journalists.”

The Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) cleared Jassam back in November 2008, on the basis that there was no evidence against him. However, US military authorities continued to hold him after the judgment. Lt. Col. Pat Johnson, a Pentagon spokesperson for the U.S. Forces in Iraq, responded the Court’s decision did “not negate the intelligence information” that listed him as a threat to Iraqi security and stability. The intelligence information implicating Jassam was not shared with the CCCI.

On the day of his release, Lt. Col. Johnson once again stated that Jassam was detained due to “activity with an insurgent organization.” Johnson reiterated that there was intelligence evidence against him but gave no indication of what the evidence was.

David Schlesinger, Editor in Chief at Reuters, deplored the lack of process surrounding Jassam’s incarceration claiming that it meant that the journalist was not given the right to defend himself properly.

Jassam was detained under war-time rules for detention, before the U.S.- Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) took effect in January 2009. As a result, US forces have claimed that they are “not bound” to adhere to the processes of the CCCI in the case against Jassam.

This interpretation of U.S. Forces remit is disputed by Thomas Kim, Deputy General Counsel at Thomson Reuters, who argues that the way that the US military has dealt with Jassam’s case is not consistent with the Rule of Law or the spirit of the SOFA. Article 3 of the Status of Forces Agreement puts a duty on the US forces not to act in a way that is inconsistent with the “letter and spirit of the agreement.” The purpose of the agreement is to allow Iraq to re-establish its sovereignty while keeping the country stable and free from terrorism. It can be argued that the US military forces unwillingness to follow Iraqi court procedure contradicts the sovereignty aim of this agreement.

Jassam’s case and other similar cases potentially cast a shadow over the U.S.A.’s human rights record in conflict zones. Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, expressed during Jassam’s imprisonment that these instances “undermine the ability of the U.S. government to effectively advocate for press freedom around the world.”

Photo Credit: AP

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.