- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 21, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three Americans went on trial yesterday on charges they tortured eight prisoners in a private jail, with the group’s leader saying he had tacit support from senior Pentagon officials who once offered to put his team under contract.

The U.S. military says the men were freelancers operating outside the law and without their knowledge.

Jonathan Idema, Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo were arrested when Afghan security forces raided their makeshift jail in Kabul on July 5.

Standing before a three-judge panel in a heavily guarded national security court, the men listened quietly to the charges, including hostage-taking and “mental and physical torture.”

Three of their former captives described being beaten, held under water and left without food.

The Americans didn’t testify. But Mr. Idema said afterward that the abuse claims were invented. He said his men had arrested “world-class terrorists” and that he was in daily telephone and e-mail contact with officials “at the highest level” of the U.S. Defense Department, including in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office.

Mr. Idema said a four-star Pentagon official named Heather Anderson “applauded our efforts” and wanted to place the group “under contract” — an offer they refused for fear it would limit their freedom to operate.

There are no four-star female officers in the U.S. military. The name Heather Anderson is not listed in the Pentagon phone book.

“The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did; they absolutely supported what we did,” Mr. Idema told reporters crowding around the dock. “We have extensive evidence of that.”

An official from the U.S. Embassy observed the trial but declined to comment on the proceedings, where only one of the Americans had an attorney.

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

There was no attorney for Mr. Idema, a bearded former American soldier once convicted of fraud, who appeared in court in a khaki uniform with a reversed American flag on the shoulder.

Mr. Idema wore sunglasses in the courtroom, completing a look that once fooled even NATO peacekeepers, who sent explosives specialists to help him with three raids before realizing they had been duped into thinking he was with U.S. Special Forces.

Mr. Idema, who reportedly is 48, said his group delivered suspects to U.S. Special Forces in the past. Maj. Rick Peat, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, said he had no information on such a transfer.

The American military says it has no idea what motivated Mr. Idema’s group, which flew into Afghanistan on April 14, but there were indications they were intent on making money.

Mr. Idema, who claims to have fought the Taliban in 2001 and 2002, offered protection for journalists and hawked purported al Qaeda training videos to television networks. Mr. Idema, of Fayetteville, N.C., is featured in a book about the Afghan war called “Task Force Dagger: The Hunt for Bin Laden.”

The prosecutor said Mr. Caraballo, 35, was a cameraman and that Mr. Bennett, 28, who wore a military uniform in court, “seemed to be a journalist.”

Michael Skibbie, an American lawyer representing Mr. Caraballo, confirmed that his client was a journalist from New York City.

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