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Afghan Tribal Leader Gets Life In Prison In New York

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- An Afghan tribal leader was sentenced to life in prison on April 30 for heroin smuggling after a judge rejected his argument that he had helped the United States for years in its war against the Taliban.

Bashir Noorzai, a leader of the one million-member Noorzai tribe in Afghanistan, was convicted in September of two charges of conspiring to import heroin into the United States and conspiring to distribute it.

Prosecutors had said Noorzai led an international trafficking organization since 1990 that manufactured heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They said he helped the Taliban come to power and gave explosives and weapons in return for protection of his opium crops.

Noorzai said he had cooperated with U.S. authorities since the 1990s, by helping the CIA buy back stinger missiles and collect weapons America funneled to the mujahedin during its conflict with the former Soviet Union.

Then following the September 11 attacks, he said he had met U.S. operatives and provided information on the Taliban. He said they promised he would not be arrested if he came to the United States, a contention the prosecution denied.

"In all my life, I never did anything against the United States government, the United States people and the United States legal system," Noorzai, who is aged in his forties, said through an interpreter in Manhattan federal court.

Noorzai flew to New York voluntarily in 2005 and told Drug Enforcement Administration agents he had come to meet with U.S. officials to discuss Afghanistan's future. He was questioned over 11 days in a Manhattan hotel room and arrested.

In sentencing him, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin noted Noorzai's history and his circumstances in coming to the United States were "unusual" but said he could not "second guess" the U.S. government on whether they should have arrested him.

"They are foreign policy considerations," said Chin. Regardless of his cooperation, Noorzai's narcotics dealings had caused devastation in the United States, the judge said.

Noorzai "caused harm to people all over the world by flooding the world with an incredibly addictive poison," U.S. prosecutor Anirudh Bansal said during the hearing.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 per cent of the world's opium. For years, the United States and its NATO allies were reluctant to tackle the Afghan drugs trade as a military mission, fearing it would drag their troops into conflict with drug lords and ordinary Afghans.

But as evidence has mounted that the trade provides major funding to the Taliban and other insurgents, Washington and some allies have become more willing to take on the problem.