Iraqi court orders U.S. to free Reuters photographer

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi court on Sunday ordered the release of a freelance photographer working for Reuters news agency who has been held by U.S. forces since early September.

The Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled there was no evidence against Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, and ordered that the U.S. military release him from Camp Cropper prison near Baghdad airport.

Iraqi prosecutors acknowledged in remarks included in the court ruling that there was a lack of evidence, and said they were closing the case against Jassam. A copy of the court order was supplied to a lawyer working for Reuters.

There was no immediate response from the U.S. military to the ruling.

Under a security pact signed between the United States and Iraq, the 16,000-17,000 detainees currently held by U.S. forces will have to be released next year if they have not been charged, or handed over to Iraqi authorities. The pact paves the way for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.

“I’m pleased to learn that a court ordered Ibrahim Jassam released as there was no evidence against him,” said Reuters News Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger.

“I hope the U.S. authorities comply with this order swiftly to reunite him with his colleagues, friends and family.”

Jassam was detained in early September in a raid on his home in Mahmudiya by U.S. and Iraqi forces. His photographic equipment was also confiscated. Jassam works for other Iraqi media, in addition to Reuters News, a Thomson Reuters company.

Mahmudiya, some 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, was once one of the most violent areas of Iraq but security there has improved in step with a sharp drop in attacks across Iraq.

Reuters and international media rights groups have criticized the U.S. military’s refusal to deal more quickly with suspicions apparently arising from reporters’ legitimate activities covering acts of violence.

In August, the U.S. military freed a cameraman working for Reuters after holding him for three weeks without charges.

It had been the third time Ali al-Mashhadani, who also conducts freelance work for the BBC and Washington-based National Public Radio, had been detained.

The U.S. military says the U.N. mandate authorising its presence in Iraq allows it to hold anyone it deems a threat indefinitely. That mandate expires on December 31.

Reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Ralph Boulton