American Accused of Running Illegal Jail Says the Operation Had Tacit Approval From U.S. Authorities

By Pamela Constable

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, August 16, 2004; 12:01 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 16 -- Jonathan Keith Idema, the American accused of running a free-lance anti-terror operation and private prison in Afghanistan, testified in court Monday that he could prove U.S. and Afghan authorities were fully aware of his actions and accused the FBI of confiscating evidence that would support his claim.

Often interrupting the judge and laughing in apparent disgust at the proceedings, Idema said FBI agents in Kabul had seized hundreds of documents, photographs and videotapes from his base here that showed "constant contacts" between him and U.S. military and intelligence officials this spring and summer.

"They knew every single thing we did, every single day," he said.

Idema said FBI agents had questioned several Afghans after he took them prisoner and confirmed that they knew of a plot to kill two Afghan Cabinet ministers. He also read from a printed e-mail about his operations, which he said had been sent to him from the office of the multinational peacekeeping forces here.

U.S. military and intelligence officials here have repeatedly denied having any affiliation with Idema, although they acknowledge having received one prisoner from him. International peacekeeping officials in Kabul say they cooperated with him briefly until learning he was an impostor.

Idema and two American associates, along with four of their Afghan employees, have been charged with entering the country illegally, operating an illegal jail, detaining and imprisoning eight Afghan citizens, kidnapping and torture. All have been in custody since their arrest July 4. If convicted, they could face 20 years in Afghan prisons.

In listing the charges Monday, the prosecutor said police had found "torture equipment, bloody clothing, handcuffs, blindfolds and stored water" when they raided a building used by Idema to hold his prisoners. He said Idema's detainees had all proven to be "innocent Afghan citizens."

Although Idema did not deny holding a group of Afghans prisoner, he adamantly denied having tortured them, saying, "I assure this court, no one was burned with cigarettes, no one was hung upside down, no one was beaten, no one was in body bags . . . none of this happened."

Noting that his operations this spring coincided with the widening scandal over abuse by U.S. military guards and interrogators at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, he said, "everyone was very concerned about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. . . . W were very careful to use standard interrogation techniques."

At an initial court hearing in July, several Afghans testified they had been detained and abused by Idema and his group, including being hung by their feet and doused with extremely hot and cold water. The alleged victims, including a senior religious judge, were all present in court Monday, and court officials spoke familiarly with them.

A second accused American, Edward Caraballo, testified quietly that he had acted only as a journalist and had accompanied Idema here to film his operations. He said he was "very sorry for any pain I caused the people of Afghanistan by my involvement in a mission I believed to be sanctioned by the American and Afghan governments."

Caraballo's American lawyer, Michael Skibbie, described his protracted and unsuccessful efforts to obtain the documents and other evidence taken by the FBI. He said the evidence might have been tampered with or lost in the agency's custody, and he called its actions "insulting to this court."

The third American defendant, Brent Bennett, stood silently all day in the dock and did not speak.

After six hours of testimony that was by turns contentious and inaudible, Judge Abdul Boset Bakhtiary postponed the trial by one week to allow Idema and his co-defendants time to examine the evidence taken by the FBI, which Skibbie said had finally been returned to Afghan intelligence police Sunday.

Another defendant, a young Afghan named Abdul Wahid, told the court he had been introduced to Idema through an Afghan military commander, had witnessed him meeting senior Afghan officials and believed he was acting on orders from the U.S. intelligence services.

Wahid, 19, acknowledged he had worked as a translator for Idema but had committed no crime. He said he had seen prisoners kept in bathrooms, tied in chairs, covered with hoods and immersed in cold water until they started choking. "The first time I saw this, I was shaken and shocked," he said.

Standing in the dock with the other defendants, Wahid also apologized to Mohammed Sadiq, the religious judge Idema had arrested, a turbaned and bearded man who sat in the second row of the courtroom. "I was rude to him as a clergyman. . . . I told him to put up his hands. I hope he forgives me," Wahid said.

But Idema, wearing military-style fatigues and acting as his own defense lawyer, aggressively interrupted Wahid and every other speaker, including Bakhtiary, Caraballo and the prosecutor. He insisted the men he had arrested were terrorists involved in plots to kill senior Afghan officials by planting bombs in taxis.

"This is insane. . . . This is crazy . . . This is a classic case of an unfair trial," Idema burst out at frequent intervals. "Just put me in jail for 15 years and let's get this over with," he demanded several times.

Each time the amplifying system failed, he loudly demanded to have the testimony repeated.

Judge Bakhtiary, robed in red and black, never reprimanded Idema but repeatedly asked him to return to the central issues of the case. The judge said that even if Idema had arrested terrorists and thereby done Afghanistan a service, he still had to answer whether he had been acting under any legal Afghan or American authority at the time.

Idema repeatedly responded that if he were allowed to view and present the confiscated evidence, he could prove he was acting with official consent. He complained that he and his co-defendants had not been allowed to see written or translated copies of the charges against them, and he said they had been regularly beaten in jail until the prosecutor ordered the abuse halted.

Idema, 48, a flamboyant and burly man from Fayetteville, N.C., claims to be a former U.S. Army special forces operative who has been involved in various conflicts across the world. In Afghanistan, he used the first name "Jack." He served time for fraud in the United States on charges stemming from his mail-order military supply business.