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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 18:20 GMT 19:20 UK
Case fraught with difficulty

By Andy Tighe
BBC home affairs correspondent

An Old Bailey jury has begun hearing evidence by video link from Afghanistan in a ground-breaking human rights case.

An Afghan living in London is accused of being a warlord involved in multiple cases of torture and hostage-taking but bringing a prosecution like this is fraught with difficulty.

Zarad Khan
Zardad Khan denies conspiring to torture prisoners and take hostages
The striking, impassive face of the Afghan lorry-driver stares out from a dozen flat-screen monitors.

He leans forward towards the camera and speaks in a loud, deep voice that resonates around the courtroom as the assembled lawyers and jurors wait for the translator to tell them what he is saying.

From the dusty plains of Afghanistan, via the British Embassy in Kabul, allegations of violence and torture are finally being brought before a jury of 12 men and women, selected to hear a case unprecedented in English and perhaps international law.

Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, 42, described by the prosecution as a former Afghan warlord from the pre-Taliban era, denies he conspired to torture prisoners and take hostages.

The reason he faces a court in London is that he was found living in Britain several years after the alleged offences took place.

And crimes like these can be prosecuted in England, even though they were not committed here.

Long-distance testimony

The court has already heard from one witness in person, Abdul Ghafour, 32, who said he had been tortured by men under the command of Zardad during the Afghan civil war.

But most of the evidence will be given thousands of miles away using the hi-tech satellite technology installed for the duration of this trial.

For legal reasons, the lorry driver who is the first video witness cannot be named.

But, slowly, with many pauses so that the interpreter can ask for clarification, he tells his story.

Zardad, he claims, controlled a checkpoint on the main road into Kabul.

One day, when he was transporting oil to the city, he was stopped by soldiers who demanded a bribe.

Laborious, frustrating process

He said he heard one of the commanders saying he wanted to sexually abuse the lorry driver's travelling companion, a young boy.

The lorry driver seized a gun to defend the boy, enabling him to escape.

But as punishment he claims he was imprisoned for six months, beaten repeatedly with a cable and kept overnight in a metal container not much bigger than a wardrobe.

He only obtained his freedom when his brother managed to raise the money for a ransom.

Listening to this account in the dock is the slight, bearded figure of Zardad himself.

Consulting occasionally with his lawyer, he watches the witness on his own personal monitor, affixed just in front of his seat.

It is a laborious, sometimes frustrating process.

One corner of the screen contains a tiny image of the court and the prosecuting barrister James Lewis, QC.

When the witness - who is following proceedings with a delay of a few seconds - speaks for too long, Mr Lewis holds up his hand for him to stop so that the translator can catch up.

Of the many cases heard in the historic courts of the Old Bailey, this is certainly one of the most unusual

When the judge, Mr Justice Tracey, intervenes, a tiny camera mounted in the ceiling swings round and he too appears in miniature on the screen, his scarlet robes clearly visible.

It is a far cry from the usual cut and thrust of the Old Bailey, where witnesses appear just a few metres from the lawyers who are questioning them.

There is also the complication of maintaining a reliable connection with the British Embassy in Kabul.

An hour was lost due to a power cut in the Afghan capital, during which the time the sole image appearing on the screen was a still photo of the witness's empty chair.

And in addition to the familiar problem of getting witnesses to attend court on time, there is the 3 hour time difference between London and Kabul which makes even late afternoon sittings difficult.

Anthony Jennings, QC the defending barrister, must jump through the same linguistic, geographical and technical hoops.

In his opening submission he argued that there had been much "wicked invention" and that many witnesses had their own motives for giving evidence.

On Tuesday he questioned the accuracy of the lorry-driver's claims of beatings at the hands of Zardad and his men.

Of the many cases heard in the historic courts of the Old Bailey, this is certainly one of the most unusual.

A few years ago it might not have been technically feasible.

Irrespective of the eventual verdict, the way the English legal system deals with crimes alleged to have been committed by a foreigner in his own country, many years ago, will be watched with interest.




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