Trial begins for Americans accused of running illegal jail

Men tell Afghan court evidence vital to defense was removed by FBI

August 17, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KABUL, Afghanistan - Three Americans who went on trial yesterday on charges of kidnapping, torture and running an illegal jail while posing as an anti-terrorist group in Kabul accused the FBI of removing vital evidence they needed for their defense and charged that the U.S. Embassy had blocked access to that evidence.

The leader of the group, a former Special Forces soldier, Jonathan Idema, said the American government and military had cut all contact and refused to acknowledge any connection with the three after their arrest by Afghan forces in July.

He said evidence removed from their house in Kabul by the Afghan National Security Directorate, and later taken by the FBI, included e-mails and other documentation of conversations with the FBI, CIA and other agencies that would prove he was working on a legitimate anti-terrorist operation with the knowledge of the Department of Defense as well as the U.S. military and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Michael Skibbie, an American member of the defense counsel team representing a member of the group, Edward Caraballo, made similar accusations against the FBI. The defense team had requested access to the evidence from the American Embassy, and had been promised the material by the end of the week. "It has not arrived," he said.

"We had to finalize our defense without the evidence," he told the court.

He said the FBI contacted him just hours before the trial and said it was handing back the documents to the National Security Directorate. "Returning substantial evidence after the trial begins shows an incredible insult to the Afghan justice system, an insult to the court and to the defense," he said. He added that since the evidence had not been seen before it was taken by the FBI, it was impossible to know if parts of it had been lost or mislaid since.

Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtiari, presiding over the trial at the Primary Investigative Court of the National Security Directorate, agreed to a week's extension to allow the defendants access to the returned evidence.

But the trial continued until 4 p.m. yesterday, with Idema speaking at length in the morning and Caraballo and two of the four Afghan employees arrested with the Americans answering charges in the afternoon.

The prosecutor, Mohammed Naeem Dawari, repeated the charges against the three Americans of entering the country illegally, running an illegal jail in different houses in the city, operating with illegal weapons and illegally imprisoning Kabul citizens. The prosecution said it had eight witnesses who were held prisoner in Idema's house as well as instruments of torture and video footage of mistreatment, which the prosecution said were found in the house by Afghan police at the time of arrest.

Idema denied committing any torture. "No one was hung up by their feet, no one's fingers were cut off, no one's head was beaten," he said.

"We used very standard interrogation techniques," he told the court.

Despite repeated requests from the judge to explain how he entered the country, and under whose authorization he was operating, Idema answered neither question directly. He showed flashes of contempt and anger at the proceedings, complaining about poor translation and microphones that often rendered the proceedings inaudible and confusing.

"I can't defend myself like this," he said. "Just give me 15 years and let's get it over with. Or hang me and let the others go free."

He produced a printed sheet of e-mail correspondence that he said was between a Swedish liaison officer of the NATO-led international peacekeeping force, himself and the Department of Defense.

"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.

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