September 15, 2004
KABUL, Afghanistan - Three Americans accused of torturing Afghans in a private jail were found guilty Wednesday in a Kabul court after a trial denounced by the defense as violating basic standards of fairness.
The three-judge panel sentenced accused ringleader Jonathan Idema, a former soldier with a past fraud conviction, and his right-hand man, Brent Bennett, to 10 years in jail. Edward Caraballo, who said he was filming a documentary on counterterrorism, received an eight-year term.
Four young Afghan accomplices received terms ranging from one to five years; one of them burst into tears with the verdict.
Idema claims to have had high-level Pentagon support in his group's efforts to hunt down terrorists, but the U.S. military says the men were freelancers operating outside the law and without its knowledge.
After a 7 1/2-hour session, presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari announced Idema and Bennett were convicted on charges of entering the country illegally, illegally arresting Afghans, establishing a private jail and torturing prisoners. Caraballo worked "hand-in-hand" with them, he said.
Idema, who wore sunglasses and khaki fatigues bearing an American flag throughout the trial, denounced the decision as a throwback to the times of the hard-line Islamic Taliban movement.
"It's the same sick Taliban judges, the same sick sense of justice," Idema said as he was led, handcuffed, out of the courtroom. "I knew that the American government wasn't going to help me."
Idema spent three years in jail in the 1980s for bilking 60 companies out of more than $200,000. He and Bennett are from Fayetteville, N.C.; Caraballo is from New York.
The group was arrested July 5 after Afghan security forces raided a house in downtown Kabul and discovered eight Afghans who said they had been detained and tortured by the Americans. Several of them told the court they were beaten, burned with scalding water and deprived of food and sleep.
Idema says the prisoners were subjected to "standard interrogation techniques" but no abuse.
Wednesday's proceedings were the most orderly yet in a trial mired by chaotic procedures, dismal translation and constant outbursts from Idema.
A non-Muslim, Idema asked to swear on the Quran before testifying. He kissed a copy of Islam's holy book, prompting one of his former prisoners, an Afghan Supreme Court official with a long black beard, to jump to his feet and acclaim Idema as a convert.
Some in the courtroom audience cried "God is great!" three times in response, moving Idema and his former inmate to exchange smiles.
Later, the defendants and their lawyers appeared stunned by the verdict, which came even though the defense was given no chance to cross-examine witnesses.
Instead, the defense relied heavily on several videotapes shot by Caraballo. They showed Idema meeting a man identified as a U.S. Army captain coordinating counterterrorism operations in Kabul, and speaking by phone to officials Idema said were at the Defense Department and the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
The supposed captain said on tape that Idema's group was "rolling up AQ (al-Qaida) like it's nobody's business."
Other footage showed Idema being greeted at Kabul's airport by its director and the city police chief, and meeting with commanders of the Afghan government's militia.
The three acknowledged not having visas but said their entry was arranged by Afghanistan's ambassador to India, a senior member of the Northern Alliance who has known Idema for several years.
"It's ridiculous to claim they entered illegally under these circumstances," defense lawyer Robert Fogelnest said.
The judge said the videos only showed they had "private" contacts with Afghan leaders and failed to demonstrate official links to the American military.
Earlier, Fogelnest argued that the Afghan legal system was so badly devastated by more than two decades of war that it wasn't fit to carry out the trial.
The entire proceeding "doesn't meet international standards and should be halted," he said. The judge cut him off, insisting he stick to the charges against his clients.
Idema claims to have unearthed a plot to bomb the main American military base north of Kabul and assassinate Afghan leaders. In an interview with The Associated Press, he also claimed to be hot on the trail of Osama bin Laden.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan has admitted receiving a prisoner from Idema and holding him for about two months. NATO forces cooperated briefly with the three, sending explosives experts to assist in three arrest raids in the Afghan capital. They found traces of explosives and suspect electronic components in one raid.
But Idema has since been denounced by the alliance and the American military as an impostor, and disowned by Afghan leaders and the Pentagon. The U.S. military had no comment on the convictions.
The lawyer for Idema and Caraballo said they would appeal. It was unclear whether Bennett, who represented himself, would follow suit.