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US now linked to 'vigilantes' in Afghanistan
By Andrew Tully

WASHINGTON - During a press briefing on Wednesday at the US State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher repeated that the United States had had no official contact with Jonathan Idema, the leader of three US civilians on trial in Afghanistan accused of kidnapping and torturing suspected Afghan resistance fighters.

"I'd like to make clear, the United States did not and does not employ or sponsor these men," Boucher said. "Our embassy's made that very clear in Afghanistan, as well." The US military and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials in Afghanistan have also repeatedly denied they were connected in any way with Idema's group.

But on Thursday, Major Jon Siepmann, a spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the US military held for a month an Afghan man who had been handed over by Idema's Counter Group. But Siepmann denied Idema had been working for the US military. Siepmann said the detainee was someone the Pentagon had identified as a potential terrorist. Siepmann gave no details of the detainee's identity, alleged crimes, or current status.

Siepmann said Idema had appeared "questionable" when he presented the detainee, and that suspicion grew when, a month later, the man turned out not to be the top suspect that Idema had described, according to the Associated Press (AP). "That doesn't mean at the time that we knew Mr Idema's full track record or other things he was doing out there," Siepmann said.

Speaking with reporters after a court session in Kabul on Wednesday, Idema insisted that the US Defense Department supported the activities of his group in Afghanistan. "We were in touch with the Pentagon, sometimes five times a day, at the highest level, every day," Idema said.

Idema, a former US soldier, said his group was in direct fax and e-mail contact with the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and with his top aides. He said a four-star official in the Pentagon named Heather Anderson "applauded our efforts". But AP reported that there are no four-star female officers in the entire US military, and that no one by that name is listed in the Pentagon telephone book.

During the court testimony in Kabul, several Afghans said Idema's group - impersonating US military officials - kidnapped and abused them, evidently in an effort to extract information about suspected resistance fighters.

One witness, taxi driver Ahmad Ali, testified that the Americans repeatedly dunked his head under water, beat his abdomen and feet, and fed him only two pieces of bread for an entire week. He said the Americans kept showing him photographs - presumably of resistance fighters - and asked him if he knew them.

Two other witnesses testified that the Americans put them in showers under scalding water. One said he was held for 18 days.

Ghulam Sakhi was one of the witnesses. The three Americans "poured boiling water on us, and beat us, and asked us to show people who they suspect to be terrorists", Sakhi said. "They tortured us several times. There were Afghan translators, and some other Afghans who are not here right now. [Those Afghans] were armed. And they were also torturing us, beating us, pouring boiling water on us."

Idema gave no testimony during the hearing, but afterward told reporters that he and his colleagues had arrested people he described as resistance fighters who were planning to use fuel trucks as mobile bombs to attack the US military base at Bagram, north of Kabul. He said the fighters also had planned to assassinate several Afghan leaders.

Idema scoffed at Sakhi's account of torture. He said he and his colleagues would be exonerated by a videotape showing the Americans questioning Sakhi. "There is a videotape in the prosecutor's possession, and that videotape is the entire interrogation of Ghulam Sakhi," Idema said. "That interrogation was taped for two-and-a-half hours straight. He's not hit. He's not beaten. He's not assaulted. Nothing is done to this guy. OK?"

Idema also said his group captured a Taliban intelligence official two months ago and handed him over to US officials. It is unclear whether this is the detainee the US military now admits to having received from Idema.

Three judges are hearing the case against Idema, his two American colleagues, and four Afghans accused of helping them. During the court session, the presiding judge granted the defendants a recess of at least two weeks so they could prepare their cases. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Copyright 2004 RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.

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