The growing scandal arising from the U.S. abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan now includes the case of three U.S. civilians accused of kidnapping and torturing suspected Afghan resistance fighters. The three are on trial in Kabul, and the man who calls himself their leader, Jonathan Idema, says they have tortured no one and insists that their work is supported by the U.S. government. After initial denials, a spokesman for the U.S.-led antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan now admits the coalition did have contacts with Idema.
Washington, 22 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- During a press briefing yesterday at the U.S. State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher repeated that the United States had no official contact with Idema's group.
"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 U.S. military and NATO officials in Afghanistan have also repeatedly denied they were connected in any way with Idema's group.
But today, Major Jon Siepmann, a spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the U.S. military held for a month an Afghan man who had been handed over by Idema. But Siepmann denied Idema had been working for the U.S. military. Siepman 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.
Speaking with reporters after a court session in Kabul on 21 July, Idema insisted that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military and that no one by that name is listed in the Pentagon telephone book.
During yesterday's testimony, several Afghans said Idema's group -- impersonating U.S. 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 yesterday's 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 U.S. 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 will 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 2 1/2 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 U.S. officials. It is unclear whether this is the detainee the U.S. 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 yesterday's court session, the presiding judge granted the defendants a recess of at least two weeks so they could prepare their cases.