April 16, 2008 / 2:30 PM / 12 years ago

US military frees AP photographer in Iraq after 2 yrs

(Adds quote from photographer, colour)

By Dean Yates

BAGHDAD, April 16 (Reuters) - A Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer working for the Associated Press in Iraq was freed from U.S. military custody on Wednesday after being held for two years, the news agency said.

Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi, was handed over to AP colleagues at a checkpoint in Baghdad. He was smiling and appeared in good health, the AP said in a report from the Iraqi capital.

"I want to thank all the people working in AP ... I have spent two years in prison even though I was innocent. I thank everybody," Hussein said after being freed.

The U.S. military had accused Hussein of working with insurgents in the country. AP has repeatedly denied any improper links and said Hussein was only doing his job as a journalist.

Hussein, 36, was freed after the U.S. military conducted a review of his status and decided he was no longer a security threat. That followed a decision by an Iraqi judicial panel that dismissed allegations against Hussein and ordered him released under an amnesty law passed by parliament in February.

He was taken to the checkpoint aboard a prisoner bus and left U.S. custody wearing a traditional Iraqi robe, the AP said.

The photographer was embraced by family members, including his brother and mother after his release, and received flowers.

AP executives welcomed the news of Hussein’s release.

"After two years and four days of captivity, Bilal Hussein is back with the AP," Thomas Curley, president and chief executive of the AP, told a gathering of U.S. newspaper editors and executives in Washington.

Hussein was seized in Ramadi, capital of western Anbar province, in April 2006, at a time when a Sunni Arab insurgency was raging in the vast desert region. He was part of the AP’s photo team that won a Pulitzer prize in 2005.

In a statement on Monday, the U.S. military said Hussein was alleged to have possessed bomb-making materials and conspired with insurgents to photograph explosions directed at security forces.

Hussein was not being exonerated of any wrongdoing, it had said. The Iraqi judicial panel dismissed two separate accusations against Hussein this month.

Many of the 23,000 detainees in U.S. military custody in Iraq have not been charged but remain in jail because they are deemed a security risk.

Hussein is just one of several Iraqi journalists who have been held by the U.S. military without facing trial. Reuters journalists have also been detained by the U.S. military for months and later released without charges. (Additional reporting by Howard Goller in Washington) (Writing by Dean Yates, Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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