The U.S. military acknowledged Thursday it held an Afghan man for a month after taking custody of him from a trio of American counterterror vigilantes who have since been arrested on charges of torturing prisoners at a private jail they ran in the Afghan capital.
The American military has tried to distance itself from the group, led by a former American soldier named Jonathan Idema, insisting they were freelancers working outside the law. 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 had appeared “questionable” the moment he presented the detainee, and that suspicion grew when, one month later, the man turned out not to be the top suspect that Idema had described.
“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 declined to identify the detainee or the fugitive he was mistaken for.
He said it was unclear how Idema, who officials say had been posing as a U.S. special operations soldier, identified himself to soldiers at Bagram, or if he asked for anything in return for the detainee.
“For all I know, Jack Idema may have appeared to be perfectly credible at the time,” Siepmann said, adding that officials were trying to reconstruct the handover.
Afghan security forces seized Idema, two other Americans and four Afghans on July 5 after freeing eight prisoners from a makeshift jail in Kabul. The arrests came only 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 late June.
7 on trial for hostage-taking, torture
The seven defendants went on trial in Kabul on Wednesday, charged with hostage-taking and torture.
Idema, of Fayetteville, N.C., and codefendants Edward Caraballo of New York City and Brett Bennett could be jailed for up to 20 years if convicted. Afghan and U.S. officials have left open whether they will be sent to the United States to face more charges.
The Americans didn’t testify. But in court Wednesday, Idema told reporters that the group had tacit support from senior U.S. Defense Department officials and that they once offered to put his team under contract.
Idema said he was in daily telephone and e-mail contact with officials “at the highest level,” including in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office.
“The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did. They absolutely supported what we did,” Idema said. “We have extensive evidence of that.”
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.
Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari adjourned the case for two weeks to give the seven accused more time to prepare their defense.
Group claims it halted plot by 'world class terrorists'
Idema appeared in court in a khaki uniform with an American flag on the shoulder. A beard and sunglasses gave him a look indistinguishable from that of many of the American security agents commonly seen around Kabul.
Idema, who is reportedly 48, claimed his group had halted a plot by “world-class terrorists” to blow up Bagram with fuel trucks and assassinate Afghan leaders.
The court heard three of Idema’s former captives describe being beaten, held under water and left without food.
Taxi driver Ahmad Ali said his head was forced repeatedly into a basin of water and that he was beaten on the feet and stomach. He said he was fed two pieces of bread in seven days.
“They kept showing me pictures of people and asked if I knew them,” Ali said. “They said they’d bring my family and beat them as well.”
Idema, who claims to have fought the Taliban in 2001-2002, 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.”