Mohammed Sadiq, a religious scholar and Supreme Court judge, thought the bearded men who had come to his Kabul home one morning in late June could only be U.S. soldiers. They carried sidearms and wore military-style clothing affixed with American flags, he recounted. Dark sunglasses covered their eyes. They spoke English as they barked orders to him and to their Afghan interpreters.
What came next for Sadiq were 12 days and 11 nights of torture.
He was kept naked and blindfolded in a small hut, forced to urinate and defecate where he sat, he said. His captors doused him with cold water and played deafeningly loud music next to him. Around him, he said, he could hear the screams of other people being tortured.
When he was freed on the 12th day of his ordeal, following a shootout that he heard but could not see, Sadiq said, he was told by an Afghan intelligence officer that he had not been arrested, but kidnapped. And his captors were not U.S. soldiers, but American civilians running a private war against suspected terrorists and al Qaeda members, and using a makeshift jail in a rented house to try to extract confessions.
Three Americans and four of their Afghan helpers are scheduled to go on trial Monday, including the alleged ringleader of the group, Jonathan Keith Idema, 48, of Fayetteville, N.C., a former Special Forces soldier who spent time in federal prison in the 1990s on fraud charges. He emerged in northern Afghanistan in 2001 as a self-described security consultant, supposedly assisting the Northern Alliance, the U.S.-supported Afghan group that was fighting the fundamentalist Taliban.
Idema -- who in Afghanistan used the first name "Jack" -- and his associates stand accused of entering the country illegally on false passports, causing insecurity in the country and kidnapping at least eight Afghans, including Sadiq. Kidnapping in Afghanistan carries the death penalty.
The two other Americans on trial are Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo. Caraballo has said through his attorneys that he is not part of the group but was there as a freelance journalist to make a film about their anti-terrorist activities.
When the three were first brought to court in late July, Idema told reporters that his activities were sanctioned at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and that he had been in regular contact with the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "We were working for the U.S. counter-terrorist group and working with the Pentagon and some other federal agencies," he said. "The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did."
The U.S. government, the American military in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have denied any connection to Idema and the others.
The only evidence Idema has offered publicly so far is that he once turned over an Afghan prisoner to U.S. military authorities at the Bagram air base north of Kabul. U.S. officials acknowledge receiving a prisoner from Idema. But a U.S. official said that authorities would accept any prisoner suspected of terrorist links and that the man brought by Idema was eventually found to be innocent and freed.
Idema is a colorful personality who became well known to foreign journalists in 2001 during fighting around the village of Jabal Saraj, north of Kabul. In January 2002, the CBS News program "60 Minutes" aired a videotape, provided by Idema, that was said to show an al Qaeda training camp.
In 1997, he sued the producer Steven Spielberg, claiming that the Special Forces character played by George Clooney in the movie "The Peacemaker" was modeled on him. Idema lost the suit.
Some Afghans involved in the case, including Sadiq, contend that Idema is a modern-day bounty hunter -- the U.S. government has offered as much as $50 million for Osama bin Laden and for other senior al Qaeda leaders. Others call Idema, Caraballo and Bennett misplaced adventurers -- zealots waging their own war against al Qaeda. Sadiq, the former prisoner, noted that his captors never asked him any questions and said simply: "They are criminals."
What is certain is that Idema was able to function relatively openly for so long because there are so many mysterious armed Westerners in Afghanistan and few people dare question them. Some of these men wear Afghan-style clothing and sport big beards and dark wrap-around sunglasses. Some drive sport-utility vehicles with darkened windows.
They may be operatives of Western intelligence agencies or private consultants hired to organize security. If the prosecutors pursuing Idema's group are right, some are entirely freelance, relying on swagger and military bearing to command authority.
Idema was even able get NATO forces operating here to assist his group in searching for bombs.
"The security forces are looking for other such groups," Abdulboset Bakhtiary, the judge presiding over Idema's case, said in an interview. "Their operating on Afghan territory threatens the sovereignty of Afghanistan."
Bakhtiary said he believes that the Americans are guilty, although he has yet to hear the evidence they plan to present in their defense. "I haven't seen anything to show that they are innocent," he said in the interview. "Everything we have seen here shows they are guilty. They came here illegally and they had a private jail."
The presiding judge said he gave no credence to Idema's claims that his actions were sanctioned by the U.S. government. "During questioning, they didn't claim they were working for the Americans," he said. "They just mentioned private connections with some authorities."
Bakhtiary dismissed the claims that Caraballo was just chronicling the group's activities for a film. "He was helping them all the time, so we count him as an accomplice," Bakhtiary said. "If he was a journalist, he had to know what his responsibility was. If they arrested people and tortured them, he had to report this. His silence shows his complicity."
Caraballo's Afghan-appointed lawyer, Najiba Rahmanzada Taj, seemed doubtful of her client's motives as well. "Edward says, 'I'm not connected to them, my job was just to take pictures,' " she said in an interview at her home. "I still don't know if he was working as a journalist or as a colleague of theirs." She said all three men entered Afghanistan on false Indian passports, traveling from India.
Rahmanzada Taj said she visited the three men in the Kabul prison, where they are being held along with Taliban and al Qaeda suspects, and found them all worried about their fate. She said they were wearing Afghan clothes and had bare feet. Caraballo asked for slippers.