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Wednesday, January 24, 2007


'Everyone in the dock' in Kabul trial

After dragging on almost two months - with just six actual court sessions - the strange trial of the three Americans accused of torture and running a private jail has come to an abrupt and dramatic end. At least for now.

Former US soldier "Jack" Idema and Brent Bennett were each given 10-year jail sentences in a Kabul court on Wednesday.

Their co-defendant Edward Caraballo - who says he is a journalist with them to document their activities in Afghanistan - received eight years. Four Afghans arrested with them in a Kabul house in July were also jailed.

But lawyers for the Americans say they will appeal.

Embarrassing revelations.

The colourful Idema - sunglasses on in court as always - insisted again he was on an anti-terrorist mission approved by the Pentagon and the Afghan government.

And that his efforts had prevented several planned attacks by Islamic militants - including against US and Nato bases and Afghan politicians.

But there will be many in both governments who will be breathing a sigh of relief that for the moment, the case is over - and out of the public eye. It has proved embarrassing for them, because of a drip feed of revelations.

First, there was the admission by US forces that they had received a detainee from Idema at their main Bagram airbase - an admission which they only made after he had revealed this in court.

The man was released, the US military said, but two months later.

Then, long after the trial was underway, the Pentagon said one of its senior officials had had contact with Idema - as he had claimed back in July. But a defence department official insisted this was to turn down Idema's offer to work for them.

Conspiracy theories.

But while far from conclusive for Idema's case, they left the impression among some that the American authorities are hiding something.

What has fed this is that US officials have never completely denied the possibility that Idema and his group were working for some part of its sprawling government and military system.

Last month, when asked by reporters for such a denial, a senior US official responded: "We can find no evidence that Jack Idema works for the US government."

Privately, some US officials say Idema "just does not fit" and is not the kind of person the intelligence agencies or special forces would take on. He is too much of a maverick, they argue.

But that little gap in the American public position leaves enough room for Afghanistan's many conspiracy theorists to speculate.

And in a country where ex-military personnel working on security contracts for the US government are everywhere, Idema did not seem out of place.

Video footage.

The case has also embarrassed the Afghan government and senior political figures.

There was the revelation on video that the chief of the Kabul police force, General Baba Jan, had greeted Idema when he arrived in the country in April.

One of the charges the three Americans were facing was illegal entry to the country.

But despite appearing several times in the court during proceedings, the police chief never mentioned that he was there when Idema arrived.

Footage also emerged of Yunus Qanuni, a presidential candidate and former education minister, receiving Idema and apparently offering support for his plans.

But again, none of these revelations supported the core of Idema's case.

'Selective' translation.

The former soldier and his lawyer John Tiffany protested they never had a chance to present the evidence that would have done so - because it was taken and held by the FBI.

Mr Tiffany and the lawyer for Edward Caraballo, Robert Fogelnest, also heavily criticised the whole process, saying the trial should be stopped because the Afghan justice system did "not meet international standards".

There is no doubt that some hearings descended into almost comical chaos, with witnesses having stand-up rows with Idema and the other Americans. And the prosecution seemed to base most of its case on accusation rather than evidence.

Translation was another problem - some of those chosen were not up to what was a difficult job.

But in one case, the translator also started offering the judge advice in Dari that was clearly biased against the Americans, whose words he was translating very selectively in any case.

This was picked up very quickly by other Afghan translators in the court room at the time.

Perhaps everyone ended up being on trial here - not just the three Americans, but also the Afghan authorities and the US government and its policy of using so many private military contractors to carry out its policies in Afghanistan.

Reposted from BBC News.

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