KABUL, Afghanistan – Three Americans accused of torturing Afghans in a private jail were found guilty Wednesday in a Kabul court after a trial denounced by the defense as failing to meet basic international standards of fairness.
The three-judge panel sentenced accused ringleader Jonathan Idema (search), a former soldier with a past fraud conviction, and his right-hand man, Brent Bennett (search), to 10 years in jail. Edward Caraballo (search), who said he was filming the two for a documentary on counterterrorism, received an eight-year term. Four Afghan accomplices were sentenced to terms ranging from one to five years.
Idema has claimed to have high-level contacts at the Pentagon in his group's efforts to hunt down terrorists, but the U.S. military says the men were freelancers operating outside the law and without its knowledge.
Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari issued the unanimous verdict after a 7 1/2-hour session.
Idema, who attended each hearing wearing sunglasses and khaki fatigues bearing a U.S. flag, denounced the decision as a throwback to the times of the hard-line Taliban (search) movement.
"It's the same sick Taliban judges, the same sick sense of justice," Idema said as he was led, handcuffed, out of the courtroom. "I knew that the American government wasn't going to help me."
Idema spent three years in jail in the 1980s for allegedly bilking 60 companies out of more than $200,000. He and Bennett are from Fayetteville, N.C.; Caraballo is from New York.
The lawyer for Idema and Caraballo said they would appeal. It was unclear whether Bennett, who was representing himself, would follow suit. It was also unclear what would happen to the four young Afghans, one of whom broke down in tears after the verdict.
The group was arrested July 5 after Afghan security forces raided a house in downtown Kabul and discovered eight Afghans who said they had been detained by the Americans and tortured.
Wednesday's proceedings were the most orderly yet in a trial mired by chaotic procedures, dismal translation and constant outbursts from Idema.
The defense was given no chance to cross-examine witnesses but was allowed to play several videotapes shot by Caraballo showing Idema meeting a man identified as a U.S. Army captain coordinating counterterrorism operations in Kabul, and speaking by phone to officials Idema said were at the Defense Department and the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
The supposed captain said on tape that Idema's group was "rolling up AQ (Al Qaeda) like it's nobody's business."
Other footage showed them being greeted at Kabul's airport by its director and the city police chief, and meeting with commanders of the Afghan government's militia forces.
The three said their entry was arranged by Afghanistan's ambassador to India, a senior member of the Northern Alliance (search) who has known Idema for several years, although they acknowledged not having visas.
"It's ridiculous to claim they entered illegally under these circumstances," defense lawyer Robert Fogelnest said.
But Bakhtyari said the videos showed they had only "private" contacts with Afghan leaders, and that they failed to demonstrate any official links to the American military.
Officials had said the charges — kidnapping, torture, theft and illegal entry into Afghanistan — carried a maximum 20-year sentence. Bakhtyari didn't say precisely what the men were found guilty of.
Earlier, Fogelnest also argued that the Afghan legal system was so badly devastated by more than two decades of war that it wasn't fit to carry out the trial.
This entire proceeding "doesn't meet international standards and should be halted," he said. The judge quickly cut off him off, insisting he stick to discussing the charges against his clients.
Idema claims to have unearthed a plot to bomb the main American military base north of Kabul and assassinate Afghan leaders. In an interview with The Associated Press, he also claimed to be hot on the trail of Usama bin Laden.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan has admitted receiving a prisoner from Idema and holding him for about two months.
NATO forces also cooperated briefly with the three, sending explosives experts to assist in three arrest raids in the Afghan capital. They found traces of explosives and suspect electronic components in one raid.
But Idema has since been denounced by the alliance and the American military as an impostor, and disowned by Afghan leaders and the Defense Department.
The U.S. military had no comment Wednesday on the convictions.
Several of the group's former prisoners have told the court they were beaten, burned with scalding water and deprived of food and sleep.
Idema says the prisoners were subjected to "standard interrogation techniques" but no abuse.