KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan judges sentenced a man to death Saturday over the slaying of three foreign journalists and an Afghan (search) colleague, who were pulled from their cars, robbed and shot as they rushed to cover the collapse of the Taliban (search).
The judges also convicted Reza Khan (search) of raping an Italian reporter before she died in one of the deadliest attacks on foreign civilians since the fall of the former hardline regime.
"You are sentenced to death," Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari told Khan at Afghanistan's Primary National Security Court.
Armed men stopped the journalists as they drove from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad to the capital on Nov. 19, 2001, six days after the Taliban abandoned Kabul following heavy U.S. bombing.
The four were Australian TV cameraman Harry Burton (search) and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of Reuters new agency, Maria Grazia Cutuli (search) of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish El Mundo daily. Afghan media had speculated that enraged Taliban and Al Qaeda forces falling back from Kabul had killed the reporters.
It was unclear whether Khan, who listened impassively as the verdict was announced, would appeal the death sentence or a separate 15-year jail term for committing "adultery by force" with Cutuli. In court, he denied committing the killings or the rape.
Italian diplomats observing the trial declined to comment on the conviction.
In a confession broadcast on Afghan state television in August, Khan admitted shooting one of the foreigners -- it was unclear which -- and raping Cutuli. He said the motive was banditry rather than politics.
But, appearing in court Wednesday wearing a traditional woolen cap and a yellow blanket around his shoulders, he said another member of the gang called Rohullah shot the journalists and denied the rape charge.
He acknowledged that he was present during the killings. He said the gang had to follow the orders of a militia commander called Mohammed Agha.
Khan also admitted shooting dead one of his three wives with a pistol because she had run away after an argument.
"I apologize to all the foreigners and other Afghans in this room," he said. "I'm not a murderer. I haven't killed any journalists."
Khan said Agha was a commander in the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s who later allied with the Taliban and maintained control of an area near the town of Surobi after the militia's demise.
He said Agha had forced him and the others to set up a roadblock to prey on passing motorists. Prosecutors say the journalists' equipment was stolen and sold.
Khan was arrested earlier this year on evidence provided by a man identified as Mahmoud who has already been sentenced to 16 years in jail.
Khan said Rohullah and another man called Shah Agha are also in custody. It was unclear when they might be tried. Mohammed Agha and other suspects remain at large.
Afghanistan recently resumed carrying out death penalties, which were suspended with the Taliban's fall, despite concern that its run-down legal system cannot guarantee a fair trial.
Last month, a lower court sentenced three Afghans to death for the killing of 11 Chinese road workers in northern Afghanistan in June. Two suspected Taliban convicted of killing a French U.N. worker in the southeastern city of Ghazni a year ago are also appealing a death sentence.