U.S. vigilantes go on trial; leader claims Pentagon support

Thursday, July 22, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Three Americans went on trial Wednesday on charges they tortured eight prisoners in a private jail, with the group's leader saying he had tacit support from senior Pentagon officials who once offered to put his team under contract.

The U.S. military says the men were freelancers operating outside the law and without U.S. knowledge.

Jonathan Keith Idema, Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo were arrested when Afghan security forces raided their makeshift jail in Kabul on July 5.

Standing before a three-judge panel in a heavily guarded Afghan national security court, the men listened quietly to the charges -- including hostage-taking and "mental and physical torture."

Three of their former captives described being beaten, held under water and left without food.

The Americans didn't testify. But Idema said afterward that the abuse allegations were invented. He said his men had arrested "world-class terrorists" and said he was in daily telephone and e-mail contact with officials "at the highest level" of the U.S. Defense Department, including Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld's office.

Idema said a four-star Pentagon official named Heather Anderson "applauded our efforts" and wanted to place the group "under contract" -- an offer they refused for fear it would limit their freedom to operate.

There are no four-star female officers in the entire U.S. military. The name Heather Anderson is not listed in the Pentagon phone book.

"The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did, they absolutely supported what we did," Idema told reporters crowding around the dock. "We have extensive evidence of that."

An official from the U.S. Embassy observed the trial but declined to comment on the proceedings, where only one of the Americans had a lawyer.

Afghan and U.S. officials have left open whether the men, who face up to 20 years in Afghan jails if convicted, might be sent to the United States to face charges.

Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari adjourned the case for two weeks to give the three Americans and the four Afghans accused of helping them time to prepare their defense.

There was no attorney for Idema, a bearded former American soldier once convicted of fraud, who appeared in court in a khaki uniform with a reversed American flag on the shoulder.

Idema wore sunglasses in the courtroom, completing a look that once fooled even NATO peacekeepers, who sent explosives experts to help him with three raids before realizing they had been duped into thinking he was with U.S. special forces.

Idema, who is reportedly 48, told reporters his group had halted a plot to blow up the main U.S. military base with fuel trucks and assassinate Afghan leaders. "We're talking about world-class terrorists," he said.

He also said his group delivered suspects to American special forces in the past.

Maj. Rick Peat, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, said he had no information on such a handover.

In court, Idema interrupted the judge to complain about the poor translation and glowered at his former prisoners and his Afghan assistants as they testified.

Turbaned men in the audience groaned in disapproval when prosecutor Mohammed Naeem Dawari said Afghan defendants told interrogators the Americans were "always drunk" and brought women to the house.

Ghulam Safi, a shopkeeper, said Idema's men stopped his car, put a hood over his head and bundled him off to their jail, where he was held for 18 days.

"They put me in the shower and let boiling water run over me," Safi told the court. He said he lost feeling in his hands and that his watch and money were stolen.

Taxi driver Ahmad Ali said his head was forced repeatedly into a basin of water and that he was beaten on the feet and stomach. He said he was fed two pieces of bread in seven days.

"They kept showing me pictures of people and asked if I knew them," Ali said. "They said they'd bring my family and beat them as well."

The third witness, a senior official at the Afghan Supreme Court named Maulawi Sidiq, said he wasn't allowed to go to the bathroom for 24 hours.

The American military says it has no idea what motivated Idema's group, which flew into Afghanistan on April 14. But there were indications they were intent on making money.

Idema, who claims to have fought the Taliban in 2001-2002, offered protection for journalists and hawked purported al-Qaida training videos to television networks. Idema, of Fayetteville, N.C., is featured in a book about the Afghan war called "Task Force Dagger: The Hunt for bin Laden."

The prosecutor said cameras -- as well as weapons -- were seized at their Kabul hideout, and that the Americans were "making a film on counterterrorism."

He said Caraballo, 35, was a cameraman and that Bennett, 28, who wore a military uniform in court, "seemed to be a journalist." Bennett's hometown was not known.

Michael Skibbie, an American lawyer representing Caraballo, confirmed that his client was a journalist from New York City, but declined to elaborate. Skibbie said his defense would rest on distinguishing Caraballo, who appeared in court in jeans and a black T-shirt, from the two other men.

"I don't think anyone has said that he played an active part" in the alleged crimes, Skibbie said.

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