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Iraqi Journalist Detained for a Year Without Charge by US Forces Despite Iraqi Court Order to Release Him

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A year ago today, US and Iraqi forces raided the home of Iraqi journalist Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer working for Reuters. Soldiers seized his computer hard drive and cameras. He was led away, handcuffed and blindfolded. For the past year the US military has held Jassam without charge. Ten months ago, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ordered his release for lack of evidence, but the US military refused to release him, claiming he was a “high security threat.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The two American journalists who were detained in North Korea have described for the first time details about their arrest and detention. In an article published today in the Los Angeles Times, Laura Ling and Euna Lee admitted they briefly crossed into North Korea on March 17th, but said they were on Chinese soil when they were detained. At the time, they were working on a story about human trafficking for Current TV.

Ling and Lee describe their arrest by writing, quote, “We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained.”

The two were held for 140 days and eventually put on trial and sentenced to twelve years of hard labor. They were freed last month after a visit to North Korea by former President Bill Clinton.

While the case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee made international headlines, a did the recent jailing of the American journalist Roxana Saberi in Iran, far less attention has been paid to another imprisoned journalist, Ibrahim Jassam, an Iraqi photographer who works for the Reuters news agency.

One year ago today, US and Iraqi forces raided Jassam’s home outside Baghdad. Soldiers seized his computer hard drive and cameras. He was led away, handcuffed and blindfolded. For the past year the US military has held Jassam without charge.

Ten months ago, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ordered his release for lack of evidence, but the US military refused to release him, claiming he was a “high security threat.” Reuters, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have all called for his release.

To talk more about this story, we’re joined by Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Dayem is CPJ’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

We did call the Pentagon to invite them on the program or provide a statement, but they didn’t respond to our request.

Mohamed, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about his case. What happened exactly one year ago?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: They came into his house early in the morning, dragged him out in front of —-

AMY GOODMAN: Where did he live?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: —- his family. He lived on the outskirts of Baghdad, just south of Baghdad. Dragged him out. His family has never seen him again. Like you said, he appeared in an Iraqi court, and the Iraqi court found no evidence against him and ordered him released. The US military claims that they’ve since — since the Iraqi court session, have uncovered more evidence against him and continue to hold him until today.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us a little bit about Ibrahim. How did he come to work for Reuters?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: He has been working for Reuters since late 2006. Up ’til that point, he had absolutely no altercations in terms of security either with Americans or with Iraqis. A good journalist, by all accounts, from everything we’ve heard. This was his only altercation. Unfortunately, it’s cost him at least a year of his life so far.

AMY GOODMAN: As I said, we did invite the Pentagon on the program, but they declined our request. But I do want to read you a statement from the US Marine Corps spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Patricia Johnson. She said this about Ibrahim Jassam, quote, “He is currently classified as a high security threat based on the intelligence information collected against him at his point of capture and since he has been in detention. Though we appreciate the decision of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq in the Ibrahim Jassam case, their decision does not negate the intelligence information that currently lists him as a threat to Iraq security and stability.”

Your response, Mohamed?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, we haven’t seen this evidence, so I can’t really comment on it. We’ve, since then, met with the Pentagon. They’ve told us that this information is classified and that they can’t share it with us or anybody else, for that matter. And, you know, we’ve argued that this man deserves due process. And he has not gotten such due process, but the US military insists that the information is classified and will not share it with anybody. And so, we’re sort of at an impasse at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger has said this about the case, quote, “Reuters is concerned at the continued and protracted incarceration of Ibrahim Jassam, and continues to urge the U.S. military to either charge or release him. Reuters believes that any accusation against a journalist should be aired publicly and dealt with fairly and swiftly, with the journalist having the right to counsel and present a defense.”

So, he hasn’t been charged by the US military, has been held for exactly a year, as of today. But the Iraqi court said he should be freed. What was that process? What information did they have? What evidence did they consider?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, the US military, at that point — this was November 2008 — shared the information it had with the criminal court, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, all its information, as far as we know. At that point, the court didn’t find enough evidence to hold Jassam and ordered him released. The US military claims that, since then, they’ve uncovered more information against Jassam and that now they’re holding him based primarily on that new information that has appeared or that they’ve uncovered since November 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: So the Iraqi government is not in charge here, though he’s being held in Iraq. Whose custody exactly is he being held in?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: He is being held by the American military.

AMY GOODMAN: But the Iraqis have no jurisdiction?


AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think this case is getting so little attention? I mean, compare it to the journalists who have just returned from North Korea, who were detained for less time.

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: I’m not exactly sure. I mean, Iraq —- security in Iraq has improved a lot, and there are a lot fewer incidents with journalists in Iraq, and that may be one of the reasons it’s getting less attention. Iraq has gotten less attention in the news, in general terms. And so, that might be one of the reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Reuters has been hit hard. Among others, Mazen Dana, one of the top Reuters cameramen, was killed outside Abu Ghraib. This was a few years ago, an award-winning cameraman. I think the words of the US military was “We engaged a cameraman.” He was holding his camera. Then there was Taras Protsyuk, who was a cameraman for Reuters, April 8th, 2003, a few weeks into the invasion, killed when the US military opened fire at the Palestine Hotel. Also, Jose Couso was killed at that time, as well, the cameraman who worked for Telecinco in Spain. US has held other Iraqi journalists without charge, sometimes for years, and then released them. What is the record of these releases?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, none of the journalists that were held by the US military since 2003 have been charged. Not a single one has been charged. They’ve all been released. Jassam -—

AMY GOODMAN: And how long were they held for?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Some for months, others for multiple years, again, without charge. Jassam is the last remaining one, and so we hope that he’s released soon and that we can, you know, turn that page.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it to stop him from working? Is it giving a different picture when Western forces — when Western reporters pull out when it’s a very dangerous situation? Those who are left on the ground are often from that country and are certainly depicting the war from — well, from the target end, let’s just say, rather than, you know, embedded in the military.

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, I’m not sure that that is the case; it may or may not be. There are plenty of Iraqi cameramen and Iraqi reporters who are working for Reuters and other outlets, and I think they’re more or less reporting from that same perspective, the Iraqi perspective.

But regardless of that, Jassam deserves some kind of due process. The man has been languishing in jail for an entire year, and it seems like an open-ended process. It is not clear when this man will be released. According to the Pentagon, he has been assessed a security rating, and he will be released when they get to that point. They’re releasing the least dangerous people first, and they’re going down the list. And according to them, they’ll eventually get to him. Well, eventually is not good enough, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: His family’s speaking out?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: They have. They have given a number of interviews in the past couple of months.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to Iran, the situation there where the government continues to hold over a dozen journalists following the disputed presidential election in June. The Canadian Iranian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari has been imprisoned since June 21st. Another journalist, Ahmad Zaid-Abadi, recently went on a seventeen-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Talk about these reporters.

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Sure. Unfortunately, the Iranian authorities are holding around three dozen journalists at this point and have released at least that many since June 12th. Among them are the two journalists you’ve mentioned.

Bahari appeared in court and looked very, very much exhausted and looks like he had lost a lot of weight since he had been arrested.

Zaid-Abadi, who you’ve also mentioned, was finally able to meet with his wife, who’s also a journalist and was also detained in early June and has been released since then. It took her fifty-three days to be able to meet with him. And he described the conditions of his detention, and they’re frankly horrific. He’s being held in a one meter by one-and-a-half meter cell — that’s about three by four-and-a-half feet — entirely alone for weeks on end. He went on a seventeen-day hunger strike and was essentially delirious and close to death at that point. He was released from his cell, fed, and put back into the same cell.

These journalists are, at the very least, suffering from extreme mental exhaustion, if not more.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, also the Americans — Shane Bauer, who did a report for Democracy Now!, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal — are also being held by the Iranian government, and we will continue to cover their case. We played one of Shane’s reports once again after they were taken when they came over the border from — did not realize the border between Iraq and Iran was right where they were. They were hiking and were picked up by Iranian forces.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, thanks so much for being with us, Committee to Protect Journalists program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

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