Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Three Americans Convicted of Running Sham Military Jail in Afghanistan

Three Americans Convicted of Running Sham
Military Jail in Afghanistan

by Matthew T. Clarke

Three Americans, led by ex-special forces soldier Jonathan Keith Idema, 48, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, have been convicted of running an unauthorized jail in Kabul and torturing Afghans they kidnapped in an attempt to extract information about "terrorists".

Idema, who used the name "Jack," surfaced in Afghanistan as a self-described security consultant to the Northern Alliance (NA) in 2001. The NA teamed with the United States to drive the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban government out of power. Idema, who had been sentenced to federal prison in the United States for defrauding 60 companies of $600,000 in 1994, offered security services to journalists and sold some journalists a videotape of an alleged Al Qaeda training camp that aired on CBS's 60 Minutes in January 2002. He was also featured in the top-selling book, The Hunt for Bin Laden , in which he claims to have fought for ten months with the NA.

The three bearded Americans wore side arms, military-style clothing with U.S. Flags, and dark wrap-around sunglasses. They and their four Afghan helpers arrived in SUVs to take Afghans from their homes, hold them naked and blindfolded in the jail and torture them. The torture ranged from beatings, to hanging their victims upside down for extended periods, to dousing them with freezing and/or scalding water, to playing deafening loud music next to their ears to deprive their victims of sleep.

Idema was able to so accurately duplicate real American government operatives that he thrice duped the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops who provide security for the puppet government in Kabul, into assisting him in raids in the third week of June 2004. The ISAF conducted sweeps for bomb materials at the raids and finding traces of explosives in two and suspicious electronics in the third. However, the ISAF officials grew suspicious of Idema, launching the inquiry that led to his July 2004, arrest by Afghan police and security forces at the unauthorized jail in a rented house in downtown Kabul. Eight victims were found at the "jail" and released by the Afghan authorities.

Idema's victims, including an Afghan religious judge, were present at the trial. They told stories of kidnapping, theft, and torture. One victim, who Idema turned over to American authorities, was cleared and released by them. The others have no apparent link to the resistance. Idemas apparent motive for the crimes, other than delusions of grandeur and a desire for high-adventure, was the more than $50 million in reward monies offered by the U.S. government for the capture of top Al Qaeda leaders.

Idema claimed to have uncovered plots to assassinate Afghan education minister Younus Qanooni and bomb an American military installation near Kabul. He presented videos showing a grateful Qanooni offering to send his bodyguard soldiers along on a raid to arrest the assassins. In another video, Ghulam Saki, one of Idema's victims, confesses to having been hired to plant bombs to assassinate Qanooni and Afghan defense minister Mohamed Fahim. However, Saki told Afghan authorities that the confession was a fabrication elicited under torture.

In an unanimous verdict announced by Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari on September 15, 2004, the three Americans and their four Afghan employees were found guilty and sentenced. Idema and Brent Bennett, 28, his right-hand man who was trained by the U.S. Army as a forward air controller, each received 10-year prison sentences. Edward Caraballo, 42, an award-winning journalist who claimed throughout the trial that he was merely filming Idema's kidnapping and torture activities for a news report, received an 8-year sentence. The four Afghans received sentences between one and five years.

The trial may not have been fair by U.S. standards. Translations were abysmal. The defense was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses and Idema frequently exploded into emotional outbursts. The judges appeared to have difficulty understanding the defense audio and video tapes, which were in English and only partially translated. They eventually became disinterested, cutting the tapes off before they were finished. The Americans were officially charged with kidnapping, torture, theft, and entering the country illegally, each of which carried a maximum punishment of twenty years in prison, but the court did not explain which of the charges they were convicted of.

Caraballo's defense lawyer, Robert Fogelnest, attempted to protest the unfairness of the trial, but was cut off and told by Bakhtyari to confine his remarks to the charges against his clients.

In the end, the panel of Afghan judges said that the Americans had failed to prove any official standing with the Afghan or the American governments and had only shown private links to some officials of each government.

Even after receiving the sentences, the Americans continued to claim that their mission had been sanctioned by the U.S. government and that they had been abandoned because, in light of the public revelations about abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, they had become an embarrassment to the U.S. government. This is especially true after the beating deaths of two prisoners at the U.S. military's Bahgram base near Kabul, the deaths of two other prisoners at U.S. bases in eastern Afghanistan and reports of allegations of beatings and sexual abuse of Afghan prisoners by U.S. soldiers.

Idema claimed to have been working directly for Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, who became a controversial figure when he publicly gave speeches casting the Bush administration's war on terrorism as a war between the Christian and Muslim religions and depicted Islam as idol worship. The defense showed journalists audio-and video-tapes, faxes and emails which seemed to show Idema communicating with the U.S. government officials to pass on intelligence. However, no document showed official sanction for the Idema operation and the tapes of conversations with Jorge Shim, an aide to General Boykin., reflect Boykin's great concern in "building a firewall" between Idema and Boykin in an attempt to separate Boykin from Idema's activities to prevent potential future bad press.

Both Fogelnest and Idema's defense lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, expressed surprise at the U.S. government's denial of involvement. Fogelnest asked, "Is this a secret that the Americans have secret ops? How many other Jacks do they have floating around?"

Regardless of whether "Jack" was authorized or not, it is sobering that his methods of kidnapping, theft and torture so resembled the standard American military tactics that they fooled the ISAF. The defense attorneys said that they would appeal the convictions.

On January 8, 2005, Idema's wife, Vickie Robertson, was arrested in Fayetteville, North Carolina and charged with violating the terms of her Texas parole by leaving Texas without her parole officer's permission. Robertson served two prison terms for forgery and credit card theft as recently as 1997. She is awaiting extradition to Texas.

Sources: New York Times; Washington Post; New Jersey Law journal; Associated Press; Seattle Times .

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login