Sunday, November 25, 2007

Kafka in Iraq: The Bilal Hussein Case

In Franz Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” published in 1925, the defendant is never able to discover why he was arrested in the first place. No law is comprehensible; no person he knows is trustworthy. The book ends with the defendant in profound doubt about everything near and far, past and present, as he waits in his cell for execution: “Who was that? A friend? A good person? Somebody who was taking part? Somebody who wanted to help? Was he alone? Was it everyone? Would anyone help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? There must have been some. The logic cannot be refuted, but someone who wants to live will not resist it. Where was the judge he'd never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached?”

Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer in Iraq, is living that same experience, as the Washington Post op-ed by the AP’s president and chief executive, posted below, makes all too clear.

But here's what puzzles me about this case: Since many of the people who were insurgents in Ramadi when Hussein was arrested for being with them are now supposed to be friends of the United States military, does that mean Hussein is a friend, too? Or does it mean he's been fingered by former enemies turned friends to protect their own interests? Or perhaps they actually do have information about him to which the AP has no access. Hard to know since no evidence is available to Hussein, to his lawyer, to his employer or to us.

Railroading A Journalist In Iraq

By Tom Curley
Saturday, November 24, 2007; A17

At long last, prize-winning Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein may get his day in court. The trouble is, justice won't be blind in this case -- his lawyer will be.

Bilal has been imprisoned by the U.S. military in Iraq since he was picked up April 12, 2006, in Ramadi, a violent town in a turbulent province where few Western journalists dared go. The military claimed then that he had suspicious links to insurgents. This week, Editor & Publisher magazine reported the military has amended that to say he is, in fact, a "terrorist" who had "infiltrated the AP."

We believe Bilal's crime was taking photographs the U.S. government did not want its citizens to see. That he was part of a team of AP photographers who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq may have made Bilal even more of a marked man.

In the 19 months since he was picked up, Bilal has not been charged with any crime, although the military has sent out a flurry of ever-changing claims. Every claim we've checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance. Now, suddenly, the military plans to seek a criminal case against Bilal in the Iraqi court system in just days. But the military won't tell us what the charges are, what evidence it will be submitting or even when the hearing will be held.

Not that former federal prosecutor Paul Gardephe, Bilal's attorney, hasn't asked. The conversation went pretty much like this:

When will the court hold its first hearing? Sorry, can't tell you, except it will be on or after Nov. 29. Since we're trying to be cooperative, we will let you know the exact date at 6:30 a.m. the day of the hearing, if you're in Baghdad by then.

What will Bilal be charged with? Sorry, can't tell you. The Iraqi judge who hears the evidence is the one who decides what charges will be filed.

What evidence will the judge be basing that decision on? Sorry, can't tell you. In the Iraqi court system, we don't have to show our specific evidence until after we file the complaint with the court.

Will Bilal be allowed to present evidence refuting your evidence that we can't see in advance? We don't know. He might be. Ask an Iraqi lawyer if you don't know how this works.

It's almost like a bad detective novel: Go to the phone booth at Third and Jones at 6:30 in the morning and wait for a call for further instructions. How is Gardephe to defend Bilal? This affair makes a mockery of the democratic principles of justice and the rule of law that the United States says it is trying to help Iraq establish.

A year ago, our going to trial would have been good news. But today, the military authorities who created the case against Bilal have largely been rotated out of Iraq. Witnesses and evidence that Bilal may need would also be much harder to find, even if there were time to track them down. Further, if Bilal wins, he could still lose: The military has told us that even if the Iraqi courts acquit Bilal, it has the right to detain him if it still thinks he is an imminent security threat…. (more)

A similar story is told in Michael Tucker's grimly funny and also just grim documentary
"The Prisoner."


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

It is just amazing to me that a person can be held for 19 months without being charged with anything. Justice and Democracy are some things which are fast disappearing from the United States.