updated 4/30/2009 6:49:37 PM ET 2009-04-30T22:49:37

A once-powerful Afghan tribal leader was sentenced to life in prison Thursday by an American judge who said his heroin smuggling overshadowed his claims that he tried to help the U.S. rebuild his country.

Bashir Noorzai, 45, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Denny Chin to spend life in prison and pay a $25,000 fine for smuggling $50 million worth of heroin into the United States. He was convicted by a jury in September of conspiring to import, manufacture and distribute heroin.

Prosecutors said Noorzai before his 2005 arrest had been designated by the U.S. as one of the most powerful and dangerous narcotics traffickers in the world. They said Noorzai's drug conspiracy had used narcotics proceeds to help arm the Taliban.

Prosecutors said Noorzai met Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in the 1980s while fighting the Soviet Union and used his influence in Kandahar in the mid-1990s to help Omar secure the position of supreme leader of the Taliban.

Provided Taliban with fighters
They said Noorzai, at Omar's request, provided the Taliban with 400 of his own fighters in 2001 to fight the Northern Alliance after the U.S. began military operations in Afghanistan.

Chin rejected defense arguments that Noorzai should be judged more leniently because crops used to produce heroin are commonly grown in Afghanistan and are viewed differently in the United States. He noted that virtually all U.S. heroin comes from abroad.

He also highlighted defense claims that Noorzai was tricked into coming to the United States for high-level government talks about helping Afghanistan, only to be arrested.

"The circumstances of his coming to the United States were unusual, to say the least," Chin said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Noorzai said the new U.S. tactic of trying to bring peace to Afghanistan by working with moderate members of the Taliban was the same policy he had urged in talks with U.S. authorities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Prosecutors say Noorzai was so influential in his homeland that he formed his own army and teamed up with the Taliban, even as he presided over a heroin empire involving some of his tribe, a million people in southern and western Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Interviewed by investigators and arrested
He was arrested in 2005 after he agreed to come to the United States to speak with U.S. government officials directly. Instead, he was interviewed by investigators for 11 days at a hotel near the World Trade Center site and then arrested.

"When I came to the United States, my motive was to go back to help my country to bring peace and stability to my country, to give Afghanistan a better life," Noorzai told Chin.

He said he could prove that he rounded up 3,000 weapons from his people after the Sept. 11 attacks and turned them over to the U.S. military.

His lawyer, Ivan Fisher, said the U.S. reneged on promises made overseas to Noorzai that he could safely leave the United States, even after Noorzai fully cooperated with U.S. authorities. He said Noorzai would have persuaded his people to grow other crops in return for U.S. help in rebuilding Afghanistan.

"All he wanted to do was help us," Fisher said.

Called the United States 'my enemy'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anirudh Bansal said Noorzai tried to increase his power by cooperating with ruling authorities and in 2002 had called the United States "my enemy."

He said Noorzai was a man who had brought "harm to people all over the world by flooding it with his incredibly addictive poison."

The judge said Noorzai knew the heroin his tribe produced was being shipped to places like the United States, where it harmed many people.

Acting U.S. Attorney Lev L. Dassin said in a statement that Noorzai's worldwide narcotics network, which included distributors in New York City early as 1990, "supported a Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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