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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 22:47 GMT 23:47 UK
Round two for Kabul's trial of year

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Caraballo, Idema and Bennett in the courtroom
Idema, centre, makes a sensational first court appearance
Kabul's trial of the year has resumed.

Former US soldier Jonathan K Idema and two other Americans, Edward Caraballo and Brent Bennett, are facing charges including hostage-taking, torture, illegally entering Afghanistan and running a private jail.

Four Afghan men arrested with them in Kabul in early July are also in the dock.

Even the judge admits he has never tried a case like it.

But the key question for this next stage is this: Will Mr Idema produce any evidence for the sensational claims he made at the first hearing three weeks ago?

He said then that he was in Afghanistan on a secret anti-terrorist mission approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon - claims the US military denies.

"We were in contact directly by fax and e-mail and phone with [Defence Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld's office," Mr Idema said when journalists asked him to name names, "and with the deputy secretary of defence for intelligence."

Civil war

Wearing military style fatigues, he said he had uncovered a sophisticated plot ordered by al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden to assassinate key Afghan politicians including Yunus Qanuni, now a presidential candidate, and to drive truck bombs into US military and Nato bases.

We were in contact directly by fax and e-mail and phone with Rumsfeld's office
Jonathan K Idema

The aim of the plot, Mr Idema said, was to stoke a new civil war in Afghanistan.

All this emerged in a kind of impromptu press conference Mr Idema held before the judge had arrived, with journalists and cameramen pressing around the dock.

Mr Idema also said he had handed over a senior Taleban figure in May to the US military at its main Bagram base north of Kabul.

American spokesmen later admitted they had received an Afghan man from Mr Idema.

However, they said he was not who Mr Idema claimed and had been released two months later.

The case has been embarrassing for both the US authorities in Afghanistan as well as in Washington.

It has also raised new questions over the widespread use of private military contractors in Afghanistan.

The best known are President Hamid Karzai's US bodyguards.

And with their trademark beards and shades, and similar weaponry, they all look very alike.

"It is very difficult to tell who's official and who's not," says one Kabul-based security specialist.

'Slew of evidence'

In this climate, many find it quite possible that the American authorities were secretly employing Jonathan Idema.

But the US military totally rejects this.

"He is not an employee of the United States military," Lieutenant-General David Barno, the senior US commander in Afghanistan, told the BBC.

"We have no relationship with him."

And the general denied US forces were employing so-called "plausible denial" freelance operatives to carry out missions in Afghanistan.

"Not at all, absolutely not," he said.

However, Mr Idema's lawyer in America, John Tiffany, says he is assembling a "slew of evidence" which proves his client was working for the US government.

He says it includes e-mails, photographs and video, but says he does not want to reveal any details for now.

But he attacked the Afghan judicial system saying "nobody is afforded due process".

Judge's warning

The trial judge, Abdul Basset Bakhtiari, rejects this.

In a BBC interview, he admitted the first hearing in this "very unusual case" had not been perfect.

"We had some problems with translation," he said, "and there was some disorder."

But he blamed this on the behaviour of journalists.

"That doesn't mean the Afghan legal system is weak," he said.

Next time, the translators would be better Judge Bakhtiari promised, but also warned that journalists could be expelled from the court "if they create disorder".

One place the events of the next hearing will be followed especially closely is at the bar of the Mustafa hotel in central Kabul, a favourite haunt for the many people working in the private security industry.

Before arrest, Jonathan Idema was sometimes among them.

The BBC's Andrew North
"Some say Idema is a renegade hero, others say he is a fantasist with a chequered past"

John Edwards Tiffany, Jonathan Idema's lawyer
"My client is being fed to the wolves"

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