August 1, 2015 / 3:50 AM / 2 years ago

Accused Russian Taliban depicted in U.S. court as assault mastermind

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Accused Taliban fighter Irek Hamidullin, the first military prisoner from Afghanistan to be tried in U.S. federal court, was portrayed by prosecutors and testimony Friday as the commander behind an attack on U.S. and Afghan forces six years ago near the Pakistan border.

Hamidullin, a former Soviet army officer believed to be in his 50s, faces 15 criminal counts ranging from supporting terrorists to firearms offenses stemming from the 2009 assault on Camp Leyza, an Afghan border police base in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province.

U.S. Army Sergeant Sergio Silva, the prosecution’s third witness to take the stand, testified that he saw Hamidullin fire on him and other American and Afghan soldiers during a skirmish with insurgents after the initial assault.

Silva added that two Afghan insurgents were killed in the firefight and that Hamidullin was wounded and surrendered.

    Prosecutors then flashed a battlefield photo taken at the time in which a younger-looking Hamidullin was shown clasping his hands over his head in surrender, and wearing pants that appeared to be deeply stained with blood.

    Silva said most of the Afghan insurgents he had previously encountered wore sandals and traditional Afghan robes into battle, but the fighters he confronted that day were an exception.

    “All of these insurgents we encountered that day had been fully militarized,” Silva said, recounting that they wore boots and other military gear.

The government has said Hamidullin was the sole survivor among 30 some insurgents involved in attacking the Afghan base. Prosecutors have acknowledged that no U.S. or Afghan security personnel were killed during the assault or ensuing gun battle.

Silva’s testimony in Richmond’s U.S. District Court contradicted opening remarks from defense attorney Robert Wagner, who denied that his client was a Taliban member and insisted “He never fired his weapon.”

    Wagner also denied assertions by prosecutors that Hamidullin had directed the attack on the Afghan base, saying his client had merely served as an interpreter among various foreign fighters.

    “He speaks five languages,” Wagner said.

    Wagner told jurors the defendant had a daughter who was a medical doctor, another daughter who was a teacher and a son who was a high school student.

    Hamidullin, who has closely cropped graying hair and a small goatee, appeared animated as he spoke with his Russian interpreter but seemed less robust than in previous court appearances. At one point, court officials used a wheelchair to help him reach his seat among his attorneys.

    The defendant faces life in prison if convicted on all the charges against him.

Editing by Steve Gorman & Kim Coghill

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