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Afghan Given Death In Journalist Killings

3 Foreigners Among Dead in 2001 Attack

By David Brunnstrom
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page A27

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 20 -- An Afghan man accused of killing three foreign journalists and an Afghan colleague in 2001 was found guilty on Saturday and sentenced to death. He had said that his gang was acting on the orders of a top Taliban commander.

Reza Khan, 29, was also found guilty by the National Security Court of raping an Italian woman who was one of the journalists. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on that charge.

Reza Khan said he had followed the orders of a top Taliban commander. (Emilio Morenatti -- AP)

"The crimes are proven, and there is no doubt about it," the trial judge, Abdulboset Bakhtiary, told the court. Khan stood impassively as the sentences were read out.

Khan was convicted in the same session on separate charges of killing his wife and of holding up a bus and cutting off the ears and noses of four male passengers.

The four journalists were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari, both of Reuters; a Spaniard, Julio Fuentes of El Mundo newspaper; and Italian-born Maria Grazia Cutuli of Corriere della Sera newspaper.

They were killed on Nov. 19, 2001, at Tangi Abrishum, about 55 miles east of Kabul.

The journalists had been stopped on the road from Pakistan by a gang of about 12 gunmen while trying to reach Kabul days after the defeated Taliban militia withdrew from the city in the face of attacks by U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.

Speaking in the judge's chambers before the hearing, Khan said he had shot "the Afghan" among the journalists on the orders of a local Taliban commander, Mohammad Agha, and insisted he would have been killed had he disobeyed. "I fired two bullets from my gun, and I killed the Afghan," he said.

In court before sentencing, he admitted killing his wife and attacking the bus passengers but denied shooting any of the journalists and the charge of rape.

"I was forced to go there, and I am really sorry for this action against the foreigners and locals," he said. "I am seeking mercy because I was forced to go there by Mohammad Agha."

Khan told the court that after the journalists were captured, Mohammad Agha had spoken by satellite telephone to a top Taliban commander known as Mullah Brother, who gave the order to kill them. Mullah Brother is one of two top military aides to the fugitive Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.

Khan said that the journalists were placed in line with their hands tied and that Mohammad Agha shot the woman first, about an hour or 90 minutes after they were stopped, and then the others.

According to Khan, Agha said, "We are going to do a jihad" and opened fire. Haidari had appealed to Agha not to shoot because he was just a journalist, and also an Afghan, Khan said.

Explaining the mutilation of the bus passengers, a separate incident, Khan said Agha had ordered this treatment of men who had no beards, to show "there are still Taliban around." While in power, the Taliban militia ordered all men to grow beards, in line with its interpretation of Islamic practice.

Capital punishment in Afghanistan is carried out by hanging. The judge said Khan would be allowed to appeal.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company