Hussein, a 25-year-old Iraqi cameraman working for CBS News, had been spending the day filming a celebration at a university in Mosul, his hometown. Suddenly, as he later reportedly said in testimony, the celebration was interrupted by the sound of an explosion – a car bomb. Hussein called a colleague at a French news agency to find out where the bomb went off. He wanted to film the aftermath, he said. He got the location and jumped in a taxi.
When he got to the scene, Hussein said in the testimony, it was surrounded by American troops. When they cleared out, he went in and started filming. He had only been filming for a short time when people around him started shouting – there were snipers in the area, they shouted. That's when he felt the pain in his thigh. He'd been shot. He went down.
"I tried to stand up, but I couldn't," he testified. Five minutes passed. Then what seemed like good news: The arrival of American troops. They were taking him to the hospital. But the troops did not consider Hussein a friend. They were yelling at him, he said, cursing him. Calling him a terrorist. "I'm a correspondent," Hussein insisted. But the troops did not believe him.
Hussein was taken to a military hospital, where he was treated – and arrested. The film in his camera, the military later said, suggested he might be involved with insurgents. He had been standing with a man waving a gun, they said, a man who was inciting the crowd. Hussein denied it all.
In those first few weeks after he was detained, according to Scott Horton, who would become one of Hussein's lawyers, details started leaking out about the supposed evidence against Hussein. "It was always a [Department of Defense] spokesman, speaking off the record, not for attribution," said Horton. The fact that Hussein was taping the event, it was alleged, suggested he had previous knowledge of the attack. And the tape in the camera was said to be damning; there were suggestions it showed four incidents that proved he was involved in insurgent activity.
CBS News asked to be provided with the evidence against Hussein. (There had been an initial hearing to decide if Hussein should be detained, but it had been closed.) The military refused to provide the evidence, despite repeated entreaties from CBS News producers, lawyers and then-president Andrew Heyward. "We're stymied in finding out what evidence there is against him," said Larry Doyle, the CBS News bureau chief in Baghdad, months after Hussein had been detained. The bureau conducted its own informal investigation of the incident. They retraced events on the day Hussein was shot, talked to witnesses who were at the scene, double checked with Hussein's references, and interviewed him twice to see if his story changed. It didn't. The bureau uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Hussein was in prison, at Abu Ghraib. His case had been extensively covered by the Iraqi media, which meant that he was known to be linked to an American news organization. In that prison, surrounded by terrorists, that made him a target. Hussein did not know if he would survive. His days behind bars turned into weeks, the weeks into months.
The Iraqi justice system, perhaps not surprisingly, is in a period of transition. The U.S. and Iraqi government share many duties; the US still runs prison facilities, though Iraqis have gradually taken over the judicial system. The lines of authority can be unclear. There are tribunals with both Iraqi and American representatives. And though the US takes pains to stress the autonomy of Iraqi courts, skeptics often see American pressure in the decisions of Iraqi judges. "Some of the delays [Hussein] experienced resulted from the transitional system," said Horton.
Nearly a year passed, and Hussein had still not had his day in court. Then, in the late evening of March 21, 2006, Doyle, the Baghdad bureau chief, got an email telling him the trial would take place soon – the following morning. Horton was in America at the time, and had no chance to make it back in time for the trial. In addition, neither he nor Hussein's Iraqi lawyer had been informed of the trial date. Horton, desperate, contacted a military public affairs officer to complain. An Iraqi judge subsequently pushed the trial back, to April 5 – the exact date, one year before, that Hussein had been shot.
It isn't easy to get to the courthouse in Baghdad. It's situated in a special protected zone right outside the green zone, and one has to go through three checkpoints just to get to the parking lot. There are two more checkpoints before you get to the courtroom. Normally cameras aren't allowed in the parking lot, but this was a big trial, and the judge made an exception.
Hussein came into court wearing in a yellow jumpsuit. When he wasn't on the witness stand, he was made to kneel on the floor in the back of the courtroom, facing a wall, near six American soldiers clad in body armor. A large crowd watched the proceedings. Normally Iraqi trials take ten or fifteen minutes, but the presiding three-judge panel knew this one was under intense scrutiny, and it lasted over an hour. The news was good for Hussein: The Iraqi attorney general, whose job it was to prosecute Hussein, said there was no evidence to support the prosecution. He was cleared.
He was not free, however. The courts have the power to exonerate someone, but they do not have the power to order his release. Hussein was taken back into custody. Horton, meanwhile, went outside the courtroom, where he was met by reporters and four or five cameras. He prepared to speak to the assembled media.
It was then, Horton said, that the security guard started screaming. Horton asked his interpreter what was being said, but the interpreter could not make it out, because the guard was too agitated. He had his gun out; he was firing in the air. Soon other security guards came over and started doing the same. They pointed their guns at the cameras, at the reporters. Horton got into an armored car, only to find multiple guns pointed at him through the window.
The standoff lasted 15 minutes; eventually Horton and the others were allowed to leave. He later found out that the guards had been demanding that the reporters turn over their cameras, something they refused to do. Horton found the situation ironic. "During the trial, we're fighting for journalists to have the right to cover the news without being targeted and shot at," he said. "Then we have this incident in the parking lot with the court's own security detachment pointing guns at reporters."
Hussein, meanwhile, was released from prison the next day. He was lucky – normally prisoners have to wait a week or so to get out after they're cleared. He will not, he told his attorneys, be returning to his old job, having decided that being a journalist in Iraq is too dangerous. He is now in an undisclosed location, according to Horton, and is trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. Horton says he still fears for his safety. He is surprised at what happened, but not angry at the United States.
His brother is less forgiving.
"It was as if the Americans were trying to frame him, to cover up the truth, the fact that they shot a CBS News cameraman, a journalist who was doing his job," Mohammed Younis Hussein told the Associated Press. "They're making a lot of mistakes. It would be better for them to leave."
The tape that was in Hussein's camera, which was supposed to have been so damning, turned out to be less than 20 seconds long. The multiple pieces of evidence against Hussein on it did not exist. The tape shows debris in a road, according to Linda Mason, CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects, and a faint voice can be heard shouting "Allahu akbar" – God is good. "Ameer had been accused of chanting this, but he was holding the camera and the microphone was right near the camera, so if he were the one chanting this, you would have heard it," Mason told TV Week. She characterized the attitude of those on the tape as somber and sad, not celebratory.
Horton said he thought the military became "locked in" in dealing with the case. "I don't think there was anybody who was involved in this who seriously thought [Hussein] was a terrorist," he said. "Certain views had been trotted out publicly, and it became very different to back off them." He suggested that those who shot Hussein may have needed a justification for doing so. None of the soldiers involved have been disciplined, and Horton believes they are now back in America. He criticized the early leaks of supposedly damning evidence against Hussein. "It was not an innocent misinterpretation," he said. "It's very disturbing."
Lt. Col. Kevin Curry, a US military spokesman, told the AP that the US military "fully supports and stands by each of the court's decisions." He pointed out that an investigative judge had decided there was enough evidence to recommend the case be tried.
There is a silver lining to all this: Seemingly as a result of the Hussein case, as well as other cases involving journalists detained in Iraq, the military has instituted a rule in which journalists taken into custody would be treated as "almost unique" cases, in the words of Major General Jack Gardner, with the charges against them addressed swiftly. Hussein may be out of journalism by age 25, but he can perhaps take some small comfort in the fact that he has left a legacy.