US mercenary 'dangled Afghans upside down in private Kabul jail'

By Nick Meo in Kabul

The Independent

09 July 2004

A freelance American bounty hunter who claimed to have been on the trail of Osama bin Laden has been arrested in Afghanistan for allegedly torturing prisoners after they were found dangling upside down in a private cell.

The men were found by Afghan security services after they seized Jonathan K Idema, one of Kabul's best-known characters. Mr Idema, referred to as Jack around the city, two other Americans and four Afghans were held following a brief shoot-out at a house in the capital on Monday.

The Interior Minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, said the men had "formed a group and pretended they were fighting terrorism. They arrested eight people from across Kabul and put them in their jail". The prisoners had been released, Mr Jalali said.

Mr Idema is an American soldier of fortune who helped the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban in 2001. He claims to have trained with the SAS in Britain.

According to his account, he arrived in the country in the winter of 2001 to play a major part alongside Afghan guerrillas fighting the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. His exploits were written about in a blood-curdling paperback, Taskforce Dagger; Hunt for Bin Laden, which details the campaign by American special forces inside Afghanistan in the months after 11 September.

The book says that Mr Idema, originally from North Carolina, joined the Green Berets at the age of 18 in 1975, just missing service in the Vietnam War, then later trained with British SAS forces at the regiment's base in Hereford.

His links to the US military and exact role in the campaign are a murky area. The book quotes the veteran US television journalist Dan Rather, who met Mr Idema in Afghanistan, describing him as "politically incorrect, abrasive, unconventional, and unquestionably heroic". Mr Idema says he almost captured Bin Laden during the siege at al-Qa'ida's Tora Bora cave hideout in December 2001.

But yesterday his buccaneering career appeared to have juddered to a halt and he was thought to be under interrogation by Afghan police, possibly in the city's notorious Waliat Jail. Hours before his arrest, the American military portrayed Mr Idema as a loose cannon. A spokeswoman said: "The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him."

An unnamed Afghan official said that after the shootout with Idema and his men, the prisoners were found in a house that had been turned into a makeshift jail. They were hanging upside down and had been beaten. The men reportedly sported the bushy beards favoured by Islamic radicals, but it appeared they had no links to terrorism.

The other foreigners arrested said they were Edward Caraballo and Brent Bennett, but it was not clear whether these were their real names. Afghan officials said the men had been tailed by security forces before being seized in a house behind a wall topped with barbed wire in a run-down Kabul suburb.

The foreigners had claimed to be working for an export company, but were arrested wearing military uniforms and armed with automatic weapons. It was not clear whether they had been charged last night.

Mr Idema was said to have spent much of his time in recent weeks at a Kabul hotel, The Mustapha. It is popular with aid workers, UN staff, journalists and the trickle of tourists beginning to arrive in the city. One Afghan shopkeeper said: "He [Mr Idema] was always friendly and used to chat. He was interested in the culture and history of Afghanistan."

The US military in Afghanistan has itself been dogged by a prison abuse scandal mirroring the one in Iraq, with claims that prisoners died under interrogation.