Three Americans on trial for allegedly detaining and torturing Afghans in a secret prison showed videotapes Monday of themselves meeting with senior Afghan officials, questioning one man who described a bomb plot and arresting another in the presence of Afghan troops and foreign peacekeepers.
The dramatic and at times chaotic court hearing, which broke off for a third postponement of the case, included an emotional outburst from one of the group's alleged victims and a businesslike recitation from two others who complained the Americans had stolen their wristwatches and TV sets.
The three Americans -- Jonathan "Jack" Idema, Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo -- are accused of illegally arresting, imprisoning and torturing several Afghans in a private jail as part of a self-described anti-terrorist operation they contend U.S. and Afghan officials were informed about. Four Afghans who worked for the men as interpreters, cooks and guards are also facing charges.
U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington have denied employing, authorizing or knowing anything about Idema and his operation, but U.S. military officials in Kabul have acknowledged receiving one prisoner from him.
At the hearing, Caraballo and his American attorney, Michael Skibbie, presented several video clips as evidence that the group had operated with the knowledge and approval of some Afghan and foreign authorities and that the Afghans detained by the Americans at their Kabul base were terrorists who planned to kill Afghan officials.
The tapes were made by Caraballo, who claims he was acting only as a journalist during Idema's operations. The tapes were confiscated by FBI agents here after the men were arrested in early July. After weeks of requests, Skibbie said he was finally able to get access to several hundred tapes and view a portion of them for use at trial.
One tape showed the Afghan education minister, Yonus Qanooni, thanking Idema for uncovering a plot to assassinate him and offering to send his personal security troops with the Americans to arrest the culprits.
Another showed one of the alleged detainees, Ghulam Sakhi, being questioned in Idema's custody and quietly describing how he had been hired to plant bombs that would "target" Qanooni and the Afghan defense minister, Mohammed Fahim.
Sakhi has claimed that his confession was obtained under torture and that he was hung upside down and scalded with hot water in Idema's secret facility in Kabul. He repeated that claim Monday in a brief conversation with journalists after court adjourned.
But Idema, who guffawed, objected and interrupted speakers throughout the four-hour hearing, gestured sarcastically toward Sakhi's image on a small TV placed next to the judge.
"Ghulam Sakhi told this court I hung him upside down, poured boiling water on him, tortured him and burned him," Idema said. "Yet here he is, sitting calmly, unrestrained, sipping a Miranda," a soft drink, "eating kebab and talking about terrorists."
A third tape showed Idema and dozens of other men, including Afghan military officials and foreign peacekeeping officers, raiding a house in Kabul and displaying objects that Idema said they had found there, including a pillow stuffed with explosives, rice bags full of bullets and explosive detonators.
Idema said one kind of explosive they found was so rare and difficult to detect that the peacekeepers thanked him "profusely" and planned to use it to train dogs to sniff it out. He said Sakhi and an accomplice were planning to plant bombs on trucks that deliver fuel to the main U.S. military air base at Bagram, north of the capital.
Skibbie, the defense attorney, said several tapes were damaged, missing or partly erased after the FBI took custody of them. He added that one of the tapes showed "a very important conversation" between Idema and U.S. officials. He said the damage constituted "continuing evidence that the FBI has interfered with the Afghan justice system."
But as in previous hearings in the case, testimony was largely overshadowed by verbal sparring between Idema and the other participants. Idema, 48, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier from Fayettville, N.C., who is representing himself, objected so often during others' testimony and comments that the judge threatened twice to eject him from court.
The hearing, before a special security court, was marked by intermittent efforts at maintaining order and by extemporaneous asides and arguments among many participants. The case is a highly publicized test of Afghanistan's fledgling postwar justice system and is being closely followed by the Afghan and international news media.
The proceedings were also thrown into confusion by unintelligible or missing translations. Sometimes so many people spoke at once that court interpreters were stumped; at other times the interpreters themselves began arguing.
While Caraballo and Skibbie were attempting to show the videotapes, both Idema and the prosecutor repeatedly interrupted to comment on what was being shown. Although Caraballo's defense is separate from Idema's, Idema kept saying he had a right to speak in his own defense after every tape.
The prosecutor, meanwhile, argued that Idema's taped meetings with Qanooni and other officials were "illegal, unofficial and personal." Skibbie asked several times that the prosecutor's remarks be stricken as "hearsay" and opinion.
Idema, wearing his now-familiar military-style fatigues and dark glasses, pointed at the prosecutor and accused him of lying in various statements.
In one outburst, Idema accused the prosecutor of telling "an absolute lie. Let him take an oath before Allah. I dare him to do that." This was in response to the prosecutor saying he had given Idema and the other defendants a copy of the charges against them.
At another point, one of Idema's alleged victims, a turbaned cleric and judge named Siddiqullah, rose from his seat in the audience and berated Idema for insulting him from the dock. Judge Abdulboset Bakhtiary ordered Siddiqullah to sit down and be quiet, but after court adjourned, the cleric greeted the judge and other officials and held murmured conversations with them.
Two other witnesses in the case, Sakhi and a taxi driver named Sher Jan, were called to testify. But instead of addressing the key issue of whether they had confessed under the Americans' torture or recanted under Afghan police abuse, they were asked only to list items they said Idema's group had stolen from them, including Jan's taxi and Sakhi's TV.
An Afghan lawyer read a statement from one Afghan defendant, named Sherzai, saying he had been hired as a servant in Idema's office and should not be considered responsible for any criminal activities there.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Judge Bakhtiary suspended the hearing for one week to allow the third American, Bennett, to obtain an attorney. Bennett asked for an attorney several times in court Monday and said his previous requests had gotten nowhere.