U.S. 'Vigilantes' On Trial

Americans Jonathan Keith Idema, center, and Edward Caraballo, left, charged with running their own private prison and torture chamber in Kabul, stand trial in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, July 21, 2004. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Three Americans accused of torturing Afghans in a private jail during a freelance counterterror mission went on trial Wednesday, with their ringleader denying any wrongdoing and claiming U.S. government support.

Jonathan K. Idema, Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo were arrested when Afghan security forces raided their makeshift jail in a house in Kabul on July 5. American and Afghan authorities say the three men were posing as U.S. special forces and had no official backing.

Appearing before a three-judge panel in a heavily guarded national security court, the trio listened quietly to the charges — including hostage-taking and torture — and as three of their ex-detainees described how they were beaten, doused with boiling water and deprived of food.

The Americans didn't testify. But Idema said afterward that the abuse allegations were invented. He also said he was in regular phone and e-mail contact with Pentagon officials "at the highest level."

Idema named a Pentagon official who allegedly asked the group to go "under contract" — an offer they refused.

"The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did, they absolutely supported what we did," he told reporters crowding round the dock.

The trial comes at an awkward time for American officials trying to contain a widening scandal over abuse in official U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An official from the U.S. Embassy observed the trial but declined to comment on the proceedings, where only one of the Americans was represented by a lawyer.

Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari adjourned the case for at least two weeks to give the Americans and four Afghans accused of helping them more time to prepare their defense.

There was no lawyer in the court for Idema, a bearded former American soldier who appeared in a khaki uniform with a reversed American flag on the shoulder.

He wore sunglasses despite the gloom in the courtroom, completing a look that had fooled even Kabul's NATO peacekeepers, who sent explosives experts to help him during three raids last month before realizing they had been duped.

Idema told reporters his group had arrested militants who were plotting to blow up the main U.S. military base with fuel trucks and assassinate a string of Afghan leaders.

He also said his group had delivered terror suspects to American special forces in the past.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Rick Peat said he had no information on such a handover.

In the hearing, Idema interrupted the judge to complain about the error-strewn translation and glowered at his former prisoners as well as his Afghan assistants when they incriminated him.

Turbaned men in the audience groaned in disapproval when prosecutor Mohammed Naeem Dawari said an Afghan defendant had told interrogators the Americans were "always drunk" and brought women to the house.

Ghulam Safi, a shopkeeper from eastern Laghman province, said Idema's men stopped his car near Kabul, put a hood over his head and bundled him off to their jail, where he was held for 18 days.

"They put me in the shower and let boiling water run over me," Safi told the court.

He said he had lost feeling in his hands and that his watch and money were stolen.

A taxi driver called Ahmad Ali said his head was forced repeatedly under the surface of 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."

The third witness, a senior official at the Afghan Supreme Court called Maulawi Sidiq, said he wasn't allowed to go the toilet for 24 hours and was also beaten.

The American military says it has no idea what motivated Idema's group, but there signs on Wednesday that it may have been commercial interests.

Idema, who claims to have fought with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, offered security to journalists and hawked purported al Qaeda training videos to television networks at the time.

He stars in a top-selling book about the war called "Task Force Dagger: The Hunt for bin Laden," and is reportedly working on another.

The prosecutor said cameras — as well as weapons — were seized in their Kabul hideout, and that the Americans were "making a film on counterterrorism."

Michael Skibbie, an American lawyer representing Caraballo, confirmed that his client was a journalist, but declined to elaborate.

Skibbie, appointed through an international legal aid foundation, told reporters his defense would rest on distinguishing Caraballo from the others.

"I don't think anyone has said that he played an active part" in the alleged crimes, Skibbie said.

Idema has run into legal problems in the past. He served a three-year federal prison sentence for defrauding dozens of companies by setting up a fake firm to order goods for his military supplies business. The companies were shorted more than $200,000.

According to local press accounts, Idema claimed the government was prosecuting him because he knew secrets that would be embarrassing to the intelligence community.

In 1997, Idema sued CBS and the program CBS News' 60 Minutes as well as U.S. News & World Report, alleging that they had breached a contract with him by failing to run stories based on information he had provided. The case was quickly dismissed.

In 2002, Idema provided to CBS News' 60 Minutes II tapes he said he discovered in Afghanistan apparently showing al Qaeda training sessions. The program identified him as "a former member of the U.S. special forces" and a "Green Beret."

On April 23 of this year, Idema filed a motion in the federal court for the Western District of North Carolina to quash subpoenas in a case titled USA vs. Idema. It was not clear what that case involved.