Mercenaries in Afghan Case Get 8 to 10 Years in Prison

By CARLOTTA GALL

New York Times

September 16, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 15 - Three Americans were sentenced here on Wednesday to 8 to 10 years in prison for running a private jail and torturing prisoners, after a panel of three Afghan judges rejected their claim that they were working for a Pentagon counterterrorist group led by Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Jonathan K. Idema, 48, a former member of the Special Forces, and Brent Bennett, 28, an Army-trained forward air controller, were sentenced to 10 years, and Edward Caraballo, 42, a journalist filming a documentary about them, was given 8 years.

Four Afghans working for the men were given sentences of one to five years. The Americans stood still as they heard the sentences relayed by an interpreter. Behind them, the youngest defendant, a 15-year-old Afghan translator, began to cry.

The Americans immediately said that they had had been abandoned by their American masters because they had become a political liability. "This can only have been staged by the U.S. government - we were an embarrassment," said Mr. Caraballo, an award-winning cameraman who says he was filming Mr. Idema's counterterrorist operations.

General Boykin was the subject of a Pentagon investigation that in August determined that he had violated military regulations by giving speeches while in uniform in which he cast the Bush administration's war on terrorism as a battle between Christianity and Islam and claimed that Muslims worship an idol and not a "real God." The speeches came to light the previous October.

Lawyers for the Americans had tried to introduce a videotape as evidence that Mr. Idema had a relationship with counterterrorism officials in the military, and particularly with General Boykin's office. But the lead judge, Abdul Baset Bakhtiari, apparently intent on wrapping up the trial before the end of the day, cut short their defense and barely watched the videotape.

The taped conversations, handed out to journalists by defense lawyers after the trial, could have provided evidence that the men were working for some special unit with the knowledge and cooperation of people in the Pentagon. But there was no immediate way to verify the authenticity of the tapes.

American Embassy officials have said since the arrests on July 5 that as far as they knew neither Mr. Idema nor anyone in his group was working for a government agency. The military has issued statements saying Mr. Idema was impersonating government or military officials and did not represent either.

Yet the videos, recorded by Mr. Caraballo in Kabul in the months after their arrival in April of this year, seem to show Mr. Idema talking on two occasions to people in General Boykin's office. In one conversation Mr. Idema is heard telling Jorge Shim, an aide to General Boykin, that he is close to rounding up a whole cell of terrorists.

The aide responds: "I told General Boykin that you called. I gave him the information and to the D.I.A.," apparently referring to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Idema says, "There are more bombs and more bombers, and we are hitting them in five hours."

The aide replies, "Five hours? Jack, I'm going to have someone from the D.I.A. contact you on your cell number, so give me a few minutes."

In another conversation, which the defense represented as having occurred days before the men were arrested by Afghan authorities, Mr. Idema is clearly asking for some help. General Boykin's aides explain that they had been trying to separate the general from Mr. Idema's activities to avoid any attention from the news media.

Mr. Idema says, "Someone's got to do something within 12 hours or I'm going to e-mail this [expletive] thing to Dan Rather. Do you think I would rot in prison if there's a problem?"

Then a man who says he is "George's supervisor" comes on the line and says, "I don't know what happened. I don't know how this happened." The speaker refers to "J2," which Mr. Idema said in court was an umbrella group of top officers in military intelligence, as he explains that people were trying to put Mr. Idema in touch with J2 intelligence officials so he could work with them.

The speaker says, "We passed all your information to the J2 staff here and to the D.I.A., and we were trying to protect our boss from getting associated with it because he does not need any other scrutiny right now by the press. So we are trying to put a firewall between your efforts and him because we did not want to connect anything there and there is no need to do that."

In Washington, a Defense Department official acknowledged that Mr. Idema had called several Pentagon officials, including General Boykin's assistant, Mr. Shim, seeking to pass along intelligence information. That information would have been sent through the appropriate intelligence channels for review, just like any other unsolicited tip.

The official said, however, that Mr. Idema was not employed by the Pentagon, and his activities had not been directed or encouraged by General Boykin or any other defense official.

The Pentagon official did not dispute the veracity of the tape-recorded conversations that Mr. Idema produced, but said he and other defense officials could not immediately confirm that the conversations had actually taken place or the assertion in one of the recordings that General Boykin's aides were trying to dissociate their boss from Mr. Idema.

Other evidence presented by the defense but not shown to the court included 70 pages of documents, mostly faxes and correspondence from Mr. Idema to Pentagon, C.I.A. and F.B.I. officials, providing reports on suspected terrorist groups.

Two documents show some return correspondence, but nothing that directly ties them to the Pentagon during the men's time in Afghanistan.

Judge Bakhtiari ruled that the men had failed to provide documentary evidence of authorization from Washington or the Afghan government for their work.

He seemed to have trouble understanding the taped telephone conversations, which were indeed hard to follow and not fully translated. Eventually, he cut short the defense, saying that the videos were inconclusive and that he needed more concrete, documentary evidence.

Mr. Idema's lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, and Robert Fogelnest, who is representing Mr. Caraballo, said the three men had been abandoned by the United States and left to their fates in an Afghan court to avoid the far greater publicity of an American trial.

Mr. Fogelnest asked: "Is this a secret that the Americans have secret ops? How many other Jacks do they have floating around?" He used Mr. Idema's preferred first name.

The case will automatically go to an appeals court within two weeks, Judge Bakhtiari said, and if the appeals judges wish, they will call the defendants back to court. After that, the defendants may appeal the case to the Afghan supreme court. Mr. Fogelnest said they would appeal.