Afghan trial opens for U.S. vigilantes

Trio says they belonged to secret Pentagon force

military denies the claims

July 22, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - Three American adventurers who claim to be part of a super-secret Pentagon task force went on trial yesterday in Kabul, charged with torturing eight men in the private prison that they were running in the Afghan capital.

The leader of the group, a former Army soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema, said his unit was directly sponsored by Donald H. Rumsfeld's office at the Pentagon.

"The American authorities absolutely condoned us and absolutely supported us," said Idema, 48, of Fayetteville, N.C., wearing a freshly pressed Army shirt with an American flag sewn onto the right shoulder. "At times we were in touch with the Department of Defense every day, at the highest levels, sometimes five times a day."

Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesman, responded: "This group of three American citizens on trial in Kabul does not represent the American government and we do not employ or sponsor them."

Idema was discharged from the military in January 1984, Venable continued, and "to our knowledge, he has not been associated with the military since."

Embarrassed NATO military commanders have admitted, however, that they cooperated with his group on at least three missions, believing it was a legitimate Special Forces unit.

After a morning session that lasted 3 1/2 hours, Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtiari granted a 15-day postponement of the trial to allow the three Americans to prepare a proper defense. The other charges they're facing - along with four Afghan colleagues - are assault, robbery, false imprisonment and immigration violations.

As the proceedings got under way, Bakhtiari returned a nod and a smile from Idema, who is known as Keith in the United States but is widely known around Kabul as Jack. Afterward, the judge said he appreciated the gesture.

"I like Mister Jack. He has a lot of good things going for him," Bakhtiari said in an interview. "He is very active and very confident."

On trial with Idema are Brent Bennett, also of Fayetteville, and Edward Caraballo, a New York-based cameraman and journalist who was apparently making a documentary about Idema and his operations.

"Edward came along as a journalist," Idema said. "He kind of embedded with us, and I mean embedded in the deepest sense."

Three of the group's alleged torture victims were allowed to make statements in court yesterday. They all said they had been kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to the house in central Kabul that Idema and his men used as a prison. A sign on the house said it was the home of a trading company, Universal Exports.

The accusers, all Afghans, said they were forced to wear thick black hoods for an entire week, and they spoke of beatings, starvation and being doused with boiling water.

A taxi driver, Sher Jan, pointed across the court at Caraballo and said the American had tried to suffocate him by putting a plastic bag over his head.

Caraballo's attorney, Michael Skibbie, said his client denies all the charges against him, as do the other men. A former public defender from New Hampshire, Skibbie said he was helping to find attorneys for Idema and Bennett.

The flamboyant Idema has a checkered past that includes a 1994 felony conviction for wire fraud. He served three years in prison.

Idema said his group's main task in Afghanistan was to snatch suspected al-Qaida agents and turn them over to U.S. or NATO forces. He said they also had prevented the assassinations of senior Afghan officials and foiled a plot to bomb the U.S. military's Bagram Air Base.

Idema said yesterday that the Pentagon had wanted to put his group under contract, although he resisted the offer because of legal restraints that would have restricted "how we work with our assets."

He offered to provide e-mails and other correspondence from senior Pentagon officials to substantiate his claims. He said his wife, Victoria, would release the documents, but she could not be reached yesterday.

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