KABUL, Afghanistan — An American accused of running a private jail and torturing Afghans suspected of terrorist activities insisted at the opening of his trial here Wednesday that he had been working with the full knowledge of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office.
Jonathan Keith Idema, a retired Special Forces soldier, told reporters outside a Kabul court that he worked for the U.S. government, was in contact with the Pentagon and had the documents to prove it.
He and two other Americans were arrested July 5 after Afghan authorities raided a house in a residential neighborhood of Kabul, the capital, and found eight Afghan prisoners, some hanging from their feet.
Idema and his colleagues -- Edward Caraballo, who Idema said was a journalist, and Brent Bennett -- deny the charges, which include torture and illegal detention of citizens.
"The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did, they absolutely supported what we did. We have extensive evidence to that.... We're prepared to show e-mails and correspondence and tape-recorded conversations," Idema said before the trial. "We were in contact directly by fax and e-mail and phone with Donald Rumsfeld's office."
The American military, the U.S. Embassy and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials here have said Idema did not work for, or on behalf of, the American government.
In Washington, officials said Idema obtained contact information for the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone, and subsequently sent a series of faxes and e-mails to Cambone's office and that of his deputy, Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin.
Officials would not describe the nature of his correspondence and said only that he offered to provide the Pentagon intelligence about the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"He approached DoD to work for them," said one defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He was told his services weren't needed."
The $50-million reward offered by the U.S. for the capture of Osama bin Laden has attracted bounty hunters, mercenaries and private security contractors to Afghanistan. Many wear a mix of American military uniforms and civilian clothing, carry weapons and set up their own roadblocks. Their conduct, which is difficult to regulate, has caused problems for the NATO peacekeepers.
On three occasions, Idema persuaded troops with the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission, to help him carry out raids on houses where he seized Afghans, a NATO spokesman said.
Idema has claimed that he was a special advisor to the Northern Alliance, the Afghan coalition that helped the U.S. topple the Taliban in 2001.
He also has said he has been running a counter-terrorism operation for months and on several occasions has handed militants to the U.S.-led forces for further questioning. He has claimed to have foiled a number of assassination bids on senior Afghan Cabinet ministers.
Idema, Caraballo and Bennett did not testify during Wednesday's court appearance. Charges related to the illegal detention and torture of hostages were read during the two-hour session, which was slowed by the need for interpreters. The room was packed with people, most of them Afghans.
Three of Idema's alleged prisoners gave statements to the court. Ghulam Sakhi said he was stopped in a taxi on his way to Kabul from the nearby province of Laghman. The car was searched, and he was taken to the private jail run by Idema and his associates.
Sakhi said his captors poured boiling water on him and kicked him to the point that he now has difficulty breathing.
Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari adjourned the trial for up to 20 days to allow the three men and four Afghan associates to prepare a defense and find better interpreters.
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.