U.S. declines to free Reuters photographer in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military in Iraq is not obliged to obey an Iraqi court order to release a freelance photographer working for Reuters news agency and will hold him into 2009, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

An undated file photo shows Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, a freelance photographer working for Reuters news agency in Baghdad. REUTERS/Staff/Files

The Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled on November 30 that there was no evidence against Ibrahim Jassam Mohammed, and ordered the U.S. military to release him from Camp Cropper prison near Baghdad airport, where he has been detained since September.

“Though we appreciate the decision of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq in the Jassam case, their decision does not negate the intelligence information that currently lists him as a threat to Iraq security and stability,” said Major Neal Fisher, spokesman for the U.S. military’s detainee operations in Iraq.

“He will be processed for release in a safe and orderly manner after December 31st, in the order of his individual threat level, along with all other detainees,” Fisher said in an email to Reuters.

“Since he already has a decision from the CCCI, when it is his turn for release he will be able to out-process without having to go through the courts as other detainees in his threat classification will have to do.”

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, 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, was once one of the most violent areas of Iraq as sectarian bloodshed raged in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but security there and elsewhere has improved markedly in recent months.

“I am disappointed he has not been released in accordance with the court order,” Reuters News Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger said on Tuesday.

In the ruling issued by the Iraqi court at the end of last month, Iraqi prosecutors said they had asked the U.S. military repeatedly for the evidence it had against Jassam but that U.S. forces had failed to provide any material.

Fisher said that the U.S. military was “not bound” to provide military intelligence to Iraqi courts.

The legal situation changes next year when a security pact with the United States enters into force, replacing a U.N. mandate governing the presence of foreign troops and paving the way for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by end-2011.

Under the pact, the U.S. military will no longer be able to detain people.

Most of the more than 15,000 detainees currently held in Iraq by U.S. forces will have to be set free as a result. Others who are subject to Iraqi arrest warrants will be transferred to Iraqi prisons. The pact gives no timeline for that process to happen but says it should be conducted in an orderly manner.

Fisher declined to arrange a meeting between Reuters and the U.S. commander of the prisons operations, Brigadier General David Quantock, to discuss Jassam’s continuing detention.

“I will not ask him to make this detainee more important than the other 15,800 detainees, when he has already made his decision,” Fisher said.

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

Reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul