BAGHDAD — An Iraqi investigating magistrate on Sunday convened the first criminal hearing in the case of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the U.S. military without charges for nearly 20 months.
Hussein was present for most of the nearly seven-hour, closed-door proceeding in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq before magistrate Dhia al-Kinani. It was the first time Hussein or his lawyers have seen any of the materials gathered by the U.S. military against him since his arrest in Ramadi on April 12, 2006.
Al-Kinani, however, issued an order that the proceedings and details of the material presented remain secret.
Hussein's defense attorney, Paul Gardephe, said no formal charges were lodged. Gardephe was permitted to see some material during the proceeding but was forbidden from taking any copies with him to aid in building his defense.
In the past, Pentagon spokesmen have alleged that Hussein was suspected in a range of terrorist-related activities.
"There is still no formal charge against Bilal, and The Associated Press continues to believe that Bilal Hussein was a photojournalist working in a war zone and that claims that he is involved with insurgent activities are false," said AP spokesman Paul Colford in a statement.
"Because the judge ordered that the proceedings today be kept secret, we are restricted from saying anything further."
In Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman also declined to provide details beyond saying that the hearing was held by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.
"We are referring all questions about the legal proceedings to the Iraqi representative judge," said Navy Capt. Vic Beck.
Under Iraqi law, al-Kinani will review the material and recommend whether the defendant should stand trial before a three-judge panel.
Colford's statement noted that "Bilal Hussein and his lawyers have finally had a chance to learn about the allegations that the U.S. military has withheld from them since they imprisoned Bilal 20 months ago. But, they were not given a copy of the materials that were presented today, and which they need to prepare a defense for Bilal. We would hope that we have an opportunity to review the material."
Gardephe strongly protested the refusal of the U.S. military to allow him to meet with Hussein privately. Since the U.S. decided Nov. 19 to send the case to the criminal court, a U.S. soldier and a military interpreter have been in the room whenever Gardephe has seen Hussein, allowing no privacy to plan a defense.
"You cannot prepare a defendant for a criminal trial with the prosecutor in the room," said Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor now with the firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to lift the secrecy surrounding the proceedings.
"After almost 20 months in detention, Bilal Hussein finally had his day in court," said CPJ Senior Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna. "But the proceedings are still shrouded in secrecy, raising fears that he will not get a fair trial. Hussein must have an open hearing, and his lawyers must be given access to all evidence against him," he added.
Hussein, 36, was a member of an AP team that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005. He is being held in U.S. military detention at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad International Airport, under a United Nations resolution that the military says permits it to hold any individuals deemed a security threat.