Jailed Americans transferred prisoner to U.S. military

Friday, July 23, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military said Thursday it held an Afghan prisoner for two months after receiving him from three Americans who have been charged with torturing detainees at a private jail.

The admission followed claims by the group's leader that it had ties to the Defense Department -- which the Pentagon denies -- and was another embarrassment for U.S. officials already coping with their own prisoner abuse scandal.

The American military insists the men acted on their own and has tried to distance itself from them and their leader, Jonathan Idema, a former U.S. soldier who once was convicted of fraud.

But spokesman Maj. Jon Siepmann acknowledged that the military had received a detainee from Idema's group at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, on May 3.

Siepmann said Idema appeared "questionable" the moment he presented the man, and that suspicion grew as interrogators realized the detainee was not the Taliban suspect that Idema had claimed.

"That doesn't mean at the time that we knew Mr. Idema's full track record or other things he was doing out there," Siepmann said. "This was a person who turned in a person who we believed was on our list of terrorists and we accepted him."

Siepmann said the man was released after a month, but a U.S. military statement issued later Thursday said he was freed only in the first week of July. The military denounced Idema as an imposter on July 4.

Siepmann declined to identify the detainee or the fugitive he was mistaken for.

He said it was unclear how Idema approached Bagram, or if he asked for anything in return for the detainee.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was "concerned" about the men's activities and any contacts with U.S. forces, said his spokesman, Jawed Ludin. "As far as we know, what they were doing was unlawful."

The U.S. government has offered rewards for the capture of top fugitives, including a $50 million bounty on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Siepmann said officials were investigating whether Idema had other contact with the 17,000-member U.S.-led force here, but insisted: "We did not commission him to go out and look for terrorists."

Afghan security forces seized Idema, two other Americans and four Afghans on July 5 after freeing eight prisoners from their makeshift jail in Kabul.

The arrests came after international peacekeepers contacted the U.S. military about their own suspicion of Idema's group, which duped the NATO-led force into helping in three raids in June.

The seven defendants went on trial in Kabul on Wednesday, charged in an Afghan court with crimes including hostage-taking, torture and firearms offenses.

Idema, of Fayetteville, N.C., and co-defendants Edward Caraballo of New York, and Brent Bennett, also reportedly of Fayetteville, could be jailed for up to 20 years if convicted.

The Americans didn't testify Wednesday, and the case was adjourned for two weeks so they can prepare their defense.

Idema told reporters in the courtroom that he had daily contact with U.S. officials "at the highest level," including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office.

"The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did. They absolutely supported what we did," Idema said Wednesday.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no evidence that Idema or the two other Americans were in contact with the Defense Department. Idema was in the Army reserve from 1975 through 1984 and received special forces training, the official said.

Idema, reportedly 48, claimed his group had halted a terrorist plot to blow up Bagram with fuel trucks and assassinate a string of Afghan leaders.

Ludin said Afghan authorities were investigating some of the detainees held at the private jail for "potential links" to extremist groups, but declined to comment further.

Three of Idema's former captives, including a judge, told the court they were beaten, doused with boiling water and left without food in an attempt to get information from them.

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

Prosecutor Mohammed Naeem Dawari said cameras and weapons were seized at their Kabul hideout, and that the Americans were "making a film on counterterrorism."

Dawari said Caraballo, 35, was a cameraman and that Bennett, 28, seemed to be a journalist.

Since 2001, the U.S. military has found 94 cases of confirmed or alleged abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army's inspector general said in a report Thursday. The number is significantly higher than all other previous estimates given by the Pentagon.

The Army inspector general report, looking at the period from Oct. 1, 2001, through June 9 in Iraq and Afghanistan, is by far the most comprehensive examination of the abuse since the scandal broke earlier this year at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

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