An Afghan court sentenced a man to death Saturday for the 2001 killing of three foreign journalists and an Afghan colleague who were pulled from their cars, robbed and shot as they rushed to cover the collapse of the Taliban.
A three-judge panel also convicted Reza Khan of raping an Italian reporter before she died, and of killing his own wife in Pakistan with a single shot from a pistol.
“You are sentenced to death,” Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari told Khan after a brief session of Afghanistan’s Primary National Security Court.
The journalists were traveling in a convoy from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad to the capital when a group of armed men stopped them on Nov. 19, 2001 — six days after the hard-line Taliban militia abandoned Kabul following heavy U.S. bombing.
The four were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of the Reuters new agency, Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo.
It was unclear if Khan, a bearded man in his 30s who listened impassively as the verdict was announced, would appeal the death sentence or the separate 15-year jail term for committing “adultery by force” with Cutuli.
Italian diplomats observing the trial declined to comment on his conviction.
Khan had admitted shooting one of the foreigners — it was unclear which — and raping Cutuli in a confession broadcast on Afghan state television in August.
Motive was allegedly banditry, not politics
Afghan media speculated at the time of the killing that Taliban and al-Qaida forces falling back from Kabul were responsible for killing the reporters. But Khan has said that banditry rather than politics was the motive.
Appearing in the chilly courtroom on Wednesday wearing a woolen cap and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he acknowledged that he was present during the killings.
Khan also admitted shooting dead one of his three wives because they had run away after an argument.
However, he said another member of the gang called Rohullah shot the journalists and denied the rape charge. He said all the members of the gang had been following the orders of a local militia commander called Mohammed Agha.
“We had to do what he told us,” he said, pleading in vain to the judges not to hold him responsible. “I’m just a poor man ... I am not a killer.”
Khan said Agha was a commander in the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s who later allied with the Taliban and maintained control of an area near the town of Surobi after the hard-line militia’s demise.
He said Agha had forced him and the others to set up a roadblock along the road to prey on passing motorists. Prosecutors say the journalists’ equipment was stolen and sold.
Khan was arrested earlier this year on evidence provided by a man identified as Mahmoud who has already been sentenced to 16 years in jail.
Khan said Rohullah and another man called Shah Agha are also in custody. It was unclear when they might be tried. Mohammed Agha and other suspects remain at large.
Afghanistan recently resumed carrying out death penalties, which were suspended with the Taliban’s fall, despite concern that its run-down legal system cannot guarantee a fair trial.