U.S. defendants say Afghans OK'd mission

A defense lawyer for one of three Americans accused of torturing a dozen Afghan prisoners in a private jail showed a video in court Monday of Afghanistan’s former education minister congratulating the group and offering his help in arresting terrorists.

In the footage, former minister Yunus Qanooni, an influential figure in the Northern Alliance that helped the United States oust the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001, is shown meeting with Jonathan Idema, leader of the counterterrorism group, and promising help.

“Any cooperation, we are ready. We have a small security group,” Qanooni says on the tape in broken English. Another video appears to show Qanooni’s security forces coming along on a raid on the home of a suspect that Idema claims was plotting to kill the Afghan politician.

Idema claims his activities were sanctioned by the Pentagon, and says the Afghan government was also behind his efforts to track down terrorists. He and two other Americans — Edward Caraballo and Brent Bennett — were arrested July 5 by Afghan intelligence agents. Authorities found about a dozen prisoners tied up at the site and say there is evidence of torture.

The trio face up to 20 years in jail if convicted. Four alleged Afghan accomplices are also on trial. A verdict had been expected Monday, but the judge postponed the proceedings for a week to allow Bennett more time to get a lawyer. Idema is representing himself.

The footage of Qanooni, also a senior Afghan government security adviser, appeared to support Idema’s claim that he had official sanction.

Chief prosecutor Mohammed Nahim Dawari conceded that Idema had contacts with Afghan officials, but he said they were held on the presumption that the American was a legitimate operative backed by the United States government.

Duping peacekeepers?
The Afghan government and U.S. military insist the men were operating without their knowledge, and outside the law. Still, the American military has admitted receiving from Idema a prisoner, who was subsequently released.

NATO peacekeepers, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), also say they were duped into helping the men on three raids in the capital, footage of one of which was shown in court Monday. On two of the raids, traces of explosives were found.

“Does the court think that ISAF would send me 50 soldiers and 10 vehicles if they didn’t know who we were?” Idema told the court. “ISAF knew exactly who we were.”

In an interview from custody on Saturday, Idema told The Associated Press that he had been hot on the trail of al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri at the time of his arrest.

Caraballo’s lawyer, Michael Skibbie, said his client was a journalist who fully believed that Idema’s operation was legitimate.

Another tape played in court Monday showed Idema interrogating a prisoner, Ghulam Saki, who was heard describing how he was paid to commit acts of terrorism.

However, Saki who was seated in the courtroom, told AP that his confession was false and that he’d been tortured.

“It’s not true. They put hot water on my body and tortured me and that is why I made these statements,” he said.

The American defendants have complained repeatedly that they’ve been unable to review the evidence against them and the indictment, and that parts of the court proceedings were not translated from Dari. They say the FBI has withheld evidence handed over to it by Afghan intelligence agents, making it impossible to present a defense.

The proceedings Monday were often chaotic, with Idema, the prosecutor and witnesses in the gallery shouting out at once.

On Monday, Caraballo was walking with a limp and using a crutch. The prosecutor said Caraballo had slipped, and wasn’t hurt as a result of any physical abuse. Skibbie said he was “not in a position to comment” on the injuries.

Idema, from Fayetteville, N.C., is a colorful character with a checkered history. He was in the Army from 1975 to 1984, and received some special forces training. In 1984, he was convicted of fraud for bilking investors in a fake company out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He spent three years in a federal prison.