"Bilal Is No Insurgent"

A Daily News photographer rallies behind his jailed Iraqi colleague.

By Morgan A. Zalot
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 12, 2007

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Unsure shot: U.S. forces captured the wrong image of

You can hear it in his voice--pain that transcends oceans and spans time, evidence of memories of war played on a continuous loop in his mind.

And when Jim MacMillan speaks of Bilal Hussein, a comrade from his time in Iraq whose photographs of the war might cost him his life, you can almost see the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"He was a man full of joy, and his work was exemplary, outstanding," says MacMillan, 46, a 16-year veteran Philadelphia Daily News photographer who also worked at the Baghdad bureau of the Associated Press from May 2004 to April 2005. "His pursuit was no less than heroic."

When MacMillan was in Iraq, he met Hussein, 36, one of 14 children of a prominent family from Fallujah. The two were among the group of 11 AP photographers awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2005.

Hussein awoke early on the morning of April 12, 2006, and left his apartment in the center of Ramadi in Iraq's volatile Anbar province to buy bread at a local bakery, according to a report Hussein's attorney Paul Gardephe submitted to the U.S. military.

Little did Hussein know that his bread run might be the last time he'd walk the streets as a free man. U.S. military forces arrested Hussein later that day in his apartment.

He remains in U.S. military custody, but the military has yet to issue any formal accusations or substantiate any evidence other than general allegations that he's had inappropriate contact with insurgents.

No hard evidence against Hussein has been released. Over the weekend he appeared before an Iraqi court, where the U.S. military's "evidence" against Hussein was presented. Still, according to the AP, no formal charges have been brought, and Gardephe was not allowed to take copies of any material to build his defense.

"I've literally begged the military--and I mean begged--to show me anything that supports the view that he went beyond the role of a photojournalist, and they've given me nothing," says a clearly exasperated Gardephe. "I told [the military], 'If you have evidence that this man is involved with the insurgency and can show it to me, I'll turn around and you'll never see me again.'"

Gardephe says Hussein is in remarkably good spirits despite having been detained for almost two years, and is optimistic he'll ultimately be acquitted.

"They've had him for a year and a half, and no charges have been brought," says MacMillan. "I'm not expecting any tangible evidence against him."

What Hussein's supporters find even more disturbing is that he could potentially be tried under an Iraqi statute, the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2005.

The only penalty provided for in the law is death.

"It's frightening," explains Gardephe, "because the language is broad enough that it could include taking photographs that show insurgent activity ... as undermining the state."

Gardephe hopes to promote the value of the First Amendment and the protection of journalists through Hussein's case. Hussein's own actions could also make a case for his cause.

"He was as concerned about the dangers of insurgent checkpoints as I was," recalls MacMillan. "We're talking about death. We're talking about having your head cut off, and he was as scared as I was. [That's] completely inconsistent with the suggestion of inappropriate relationships with insurgents."

Gardephe fondly recounts a particular instance in which he was impressed by Hussein's dedication to the ethics and tenets of journalism, especially that of remaining neutral.

Hussein once photographed the destruction caused by a U.S. shell hitting a mosque in Ramadi that was crowded with civilians.

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