Akbar Agha was a senior Taliban commander
A Taliban commander who was jailed for kidnapping foreigners in Kabul was released early, the BBC has learnt.
Akbar Agha was sentenced to 16 years in prison for kidnapping three UN workers in the Afghan capital in 2004. He was released from prison late last year.
His friends told the BBC he had been pardoned by President Hamid Karzai. But a spokesman said the president "could not recall the matter".
The UN staff were the first foreigners to be kidnapped in Kabul.
One was a woman from Northern Ireland, the other two were men from Kosovo and the Philippines.
Akbar Agha, who had old links with Arab radical groups, used the kidnap to launch a Taliban splinter group, Jaish-ul-Muslimeen or the Army of Muslims.
He threatened to behead the three hostages, but joint Afghan-international efforts managed to find and free them after a month.
Akbar Agha was extradited from Pakistan, put on trial in Kabul and given a long jail sentence.
The BBC has now discovered that Agha was quietly freed late last year, possibly just before the festival of Eid al-Adha in mid-November. The UN learnt about the release in August.
Friends said President Karzai had pardoned Agha, on condition that he stayed in Kabul.
A presidential spokesman told the BBC that he had looked into the records of pardons and had not been able to find any mention of this case.
The former head of the United Nations in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said his office had been informed in August of Agha's planned release by the head of the Supreme Court.
Mr Eide said he had been irritated that the issue was raised through what he called an "unacceptable channel" and admitted he had not taken up the issue with the president.
Staff at the UN told the BBC previous attempts to pardon Agha in 2007 had been met by high-level protests.
One of Agha's friends, who had been to welcome him out of jail, also pointed to earlier UN pressure as the reason why he had only now been released.
"People from Kandahar had been demanding Akbar Agha's release for a long time. He is from a spiritual family - he's a sayed, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, and that is why they wanted him released.
"He was pardoned on condition that he stays in Kabul. The government's paying the rent on his house - I think it's about $1,000 a month."
Threat to justice
Michael Semple - who worked for the European Union in Kabul and was at the heart of the operation to free the hostages - told the BBC that it was extremely unlikely Akbar Agha had been released as part of the reconciliation process with the Taliban.
"He headed up a splinter group which tried to turn the jihad into business. He acted outside the authority of Mullah Omar and the Taliban," Mr Semple said.
"They did not condone kidnapping and did not approve of his actions and frankly I suspect they were rather happy to see him locked up. That probably helped them discipline the insurgency and maintain control over the organisation."
Afghan Human Rights Commissioner Nader Naderi said that he had been shocked - but not surprised by the pardon.
"So many are now being given," he said. "If it's used without the public knowledge and not transparent, it can undermine justice... most of those people who are powerful have access to the president and can buy their way out."
Other controversial pardons which have come to light have been given to major drug traffickers and rapists.
Michael Semple says that far from being chastened, the news on the streets is that Agha is now looking for his money - the ransom he was never paid.
"I gather that Akbar Agha still feels miffed that, after all the effort and investment that he put into organising this kidnapping, he never actually received a ransom."