Afghan Trial of Alleged US Vigilantes Halted as FBI Returns Evidence
Published on Monday, August 16, 2004 by the Agence France Presse
Afghan Trial of Alleged US Vigilantes Halted as FBI Returns Evidence

The trial of three Americans accused of jailing, kidnapping and torturing prisoners in Afghanistan was dramatically halted after the FBI returned a "substantial" amount of evidence to Afghan authorities.

Judge Abdul Baset Bahktiari adjourned the trial for seven days to allow the Americans and their four Afghan co-accused time to study the evidence, which prosecutors said had been held by the FBI for more than 20 days.

"We received the documents 10 minutes ago," Mohammed Naim Daiwari told the court's afternoon session.

The defendants, arrested in July for allegedly running a private prison and counter-terrorism operations in Kabul, had earlier accused the Federal Bureau of Investigation of withholding evidence proving their links to US authorities.

"In front of the judge is the receipt that the FBI signed. Why did the judge allow the FBI to take evidence from the NDS?" Idema said, alleging 500 pages of documents, 200 videotapes and at least 400 photos detailing his links with the agencies had been seized.

Micheal Skibbie, lawyer for journalist Edward Caraballo who, he said, was making a documentary about Idema's operations, told reporters: "Returning a substantial amount of evidence after a trial has begun constitutes an insult to the Afghan justice system."

Skibbie said the FBI's reasons for interfering in the trial were unknown but added: "We do know that evidence was taken away before any of the defendants had a chance to examine it, and we also don't know if the evidence was changed or parts of it were lost while it was with the FBI."

Idema, wearing dark sunglasses and a khaki army shirt with a US flag on the shoulder, was in the dock with co-defendants Brent Bennet, also in khakis, Caraballo, who wore a traditional long Afghan smock over trousers, and their four Afghan partners.

The seven men face jail sentences of between 16 and 20 years if found guilty.

Idema claims that he and his partners were working with the full knowledge of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to hunt down suspected terrorists.

"Everyone knew what we were doing. We were not in the United States military but we were working with the United States military," he said.

Both the US and Afghan governments have disavowed any ties with Idema's outfit.

However, since Idema's earlier court appearance on July 21, US-led coalition forces have admitted they took a terror suspect arrested by Idema into custody, later releasing him after US forces found he was not a wanted militant.

Idema claims he foiled a plot to blow up the US airbase at Bagram with fuel trucks and attempts to assassinate Afghan defense minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim and former education minister Yunus Qanooni, who is running against Hamid Karzai in October 9 presidential elections.

US-led coalition forces and NATO-led peacekeepers said they were duped into helping Idema's team, who wore US-style uniforms, believing they were legitimate special forces operatives.

Idema said the US government severed its links with him after Afghan radio broadcast a report saying he had tortured Afghans.

"As soon as the word 'torture' hit the Afghan airwaves the US government said, 'Woo-hoo, we don't want anything to do with these guys'."

He denied claims of torture made by several Afghans who had been detained by his group.

"We used very standard interrogation techniques...and everyone was very concerned about Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to the Iraq prison abuse scandal.

Several former captives have said they were beaten, scalded with hot water and kept without food or water for days.

US forces here are already under fire from rights groups for their alleged mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan, several of whom have died while in custody.

The case has shone a spotlight on the shadowy world of security and counter-terrorism in a country where US-led forces and international peacekeepers stay close to their bases, leaving a wide swathe for private security contractors to operate.

US news reports said Idema was a bounty hunter who had spent time in jail for fraud and had formerly fought with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan.

© Copyright 2004 AFP