British court makes history with conviction of Afghan warlord

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Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, who was tracked down to the London suburbs after fleeing Afghanistan to escape the Taliban, is the first foreign national to be convicted in Britain of torture offences committed abroad.

The Old Bailey trial, thought to be the first of its kind in the world, heard from witnesses giving evidence via a video link from the Afghan capital, Kabul, that Zardad ruthlessly exerted his control of an important supply route in the 1990s.

The 41-year-old warlord used his militiamen for four years to terrorise the civilian population in the region under his control, abducting and torturing victims during imprisonment that could last for months. One victim told the trial that he was so badly beaten by Zardad's men during his four-month detention that when he was eventually released his family failed to recognise him.

The warlord was convicted of conspiring to take hostages and conspiracy to torture at a retrial after a jury failed to return verdicts at a trial last year. He will be sentenced next Tuesday.

Officers from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch conducted a lengthy investigation costing an estimated £1m to track down victims in Afghanistan, many of whom remained too terrified of Zardad to give evidence. Those who did were driven to the British embassy in Kabul and used video screens linked to the Old Bailey courtroom.

Ken Macdonald, the director of public prosecutions, said: "Zardad's actions and those of his men were horrific. Through our witnesses, we were able to tell the jury of his reign of terror.

"By securing this conviction, we have shown there is no hiding place here for torturers and hostage-takers."

The warlord was a leading member of a group calling itself Hizb-i-Islam, or the Islamic Party, and was considered a "folk hero" after fighting both against the Russians as a member of the mujahedin and the Taliban.

But the court heard that he came to control a series of checkpoints on roads leading to Pakistan in the Sarobi district some 50 miles outside Kabul where his men would seize travellers between 1992 and 1996, when the fundamentalist Taliban took over Afghanistan. Victims told of being beaten with rubber hoses and bicycle chains or stabbed with a bayonet and strung up until unconscious. The jury was told that the group was assisted by a man who was kept tethered and would bite and attack travellers.

The investigation into Zardad, who arrived in Britain in 1998 under a false passport, was sparked when he was tracked down to his home in Bexleyheath, Kent, by the BBC journalist John Simpson.

When arrested by anti-terrorist branch officers in 2002, Zardad had withdrawn his application for political asylum on the grounds his affiliation with Hizb-i-Islami made him a target for the Taliban and was feared to be preparing to leave the UK.

The warlord claimed in court that he had banned any torture by his troops and the witnesses who gave evidence against him were politically motivated.

* Pakistani intelligence agents have arrested five Taliban leaders, including a deputy to the fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar. Security agents raidedhomes in north-western Pakistan, an official said. One of the captured men was Maulvi Abdul Qadeer, a deputy to Mullah Omar.