KABUL, Afghanistan – American authorities are satisfied that three U.S. citizens on trial in Afghanistan for allegedly torturing prisoners during a freelance counter-terrorism mission are being treated humanely, despite charges from the defendants that they have been beaten in jail, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
"They are being treated well," said the official, who spoke on the condition he not be further identified. "Our embassy is watching closely and we should let the trial proceed and not try to influence it."
The three face up to 20 years in jail if convicted on charges of torture and kidnapping. They were arrested July 5 when authorities freed about a dozen Afghan men being held at a private jail. The Afghan prisoners were allegedly tortured using boiling water, and much of the abuse was apparently video-taped.
Idema, a former U.S. soldier with a checkered past that includes a stint in federal prison for fraud, denies he tortured anyone and claims he was working with the approval of the Pentagon and senior Afghan authorities. Videos of the alleged torture have not been played in court.
On Monday, Caraballo, a New York City native, came to court walking with a limp and on crutches, and displayed large bruises on the bottom of one of his feet.
Idema charged in court that his co-defendant had been beaten. Caraballo's lawyer, Michael Skibbie, said only that he was "not in a position to comment" on how his client got the injuries. Idema also claims that he was severely beaten in his initial days in custody.
The American official said the embassy wants to make sure that the trial is conducted fairly, but also recognizes the right of Afghanistan to pursue a case.
"The charges leveled are very serious charges about serious crimes," he said.
The U.S. military has described Idema as a freelancer with no connections to it whatsoever. However, it has acknowledged receiving a prisoner from his crew and holding the man for about two months. The suspect was subsequently released.
The official said there was no apparent link between Idema, known locally as Jack, and any part of the U.S. government.
"I can find no evidence whatsoever that Jack worked for us or was doing anything with the U.S. government," he said.
NATO peacekeepers also acknowledge being duped into taking part in several raids with Idema and his men. On Monday, a defense lawyer played a videotape showing Afghanistan's former education minister, Yunus Qanooni, thanking Idema for arresting two people and offering his full cooperation in future raids.
The prosecution says Qanooni and other Afghan officials only cooperated with Idema because they too were tricked into thinking he was a legitimate American agent.
Idema, from Fayetteville, N.C., was in the Army from 1975 to 1984 and received some special forces training. In 1984, he was convicted of fraud for bilking investors in a fake company out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He spent three years in federal prison.
At one point, he sued Steven Spielberg (search) over the 1997 movie "The Peacemaker." He claimed the special forces operative played by George Clooney (search) was modeled on him. A judge dismissed Idema's claim and ordered him to pay $267,079 in attorney fees.
The trial is set to resume next week.