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Vigilantes deny Afghan torture charges

Three American counterterrorism vigilantes on trial for allegedly running a private jail in Afghanistan denied Monday that they tortured prisoners.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three American counterterrorism vigilantes on trial for allegedly running a private jail in Afghanistan denied Monday that they tortured prisoners and won a week’s recess to bolster their defense with documents returned by the FBI.

The group’s leader, Jonathan Idema, had accused authorities of withholding hundreds of documents, photos and videos he claimed will prove his group was working with the knowledge of the CIA, FBI and U.S. Department of Defense.

Idema, Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo were arrested when Afghan security forces raided their makeshift jail in a house in Kabul on July 5. They face charges including hostage-taking and “mental and physical torture,” which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In the trio’s second court appearance, along with four Afghans accused of helping them, Idema said that U.S. and Afghan officials were conspiring against him and that he could not defend himself properly because he received no translation of the indictment or laws on which he’s being charged.

“We don’t even know what the law says,” said Idema.

Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari accused Idema, who is conducting his own defense, of failing to respond to the charges. “You just want to waste time. You understand perfectly,” he said.

Evidence allegedly confiscated
Idema said Afghan intelligence agents had confiscated some 200 videotapes, 500 pages of documents and more than 800 photos and given them to U.S. authorities. He claimed these materials are key to the defense because they give details of the interrogations of prisoners and prove the defendants were operating with the knowledge of U.S. military and law enforcers.

After deliberating with his two assistants, the judge adjourned the case for a week.

A lawyer for Caraballo said American officials told him only late Sunday that the materials had been returned to the Afghan intelligence service.

“The FBI knew when the trial was,” attorney Michael Skibbie said. “It shows incredible disrespect for the Afghan justice system.”

He said his client also denied abusing any prisoners.

U.S. Embassy officials in court declined to comment on the proceedings.

Idema, from Fayetteville, N.C., previously claimed that his team had arrested “world-class terrorists” and that he had been in contact with senior Pentagon officials.

The U.S. military, facing its own own allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, contends the men were freelancers operating outside the law and without their knowledge.

'No marks on anyone'
At the first court hearing July 21, some of the eight prisoners’ rescued from the group’s private jail alleged they had been beaten, deprived of food and doused in hot water.

“None of this ever happened and there’s no marks on anyone to show that it did,” Idema told the court Monday.

He said his group had been aware of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and had used only “very standard” interrogation techniques.

The American military says it has no idea what motivated Idema’s group — but there are indications it may have been commercial.

The U.S. government has offered rewards for the capture of a string of top terrorist fugitives, including a $50 million bounty on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Idema, who claims to have fought with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001-02, offered security to journalists and hawked purported al-Qaida training videos to television networks at the time.

The prosecutor has said Caraballo, 35, of New York, and Bennett, 28, also reportedly of Fayetteville, appeared to be journalists.