Lawyer: ‘Preposterous’ to blame Afghan man in U.S. war deaths

FILE - In this July 10, 2008, file photo, friends and family watch a military honor guard carry the casket of Sgt. 1st Class Joseph A. McKay, during a funeral service at Long Island National cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y. Haji Najibullah, a former Taliban commander who's in U.S. custody, is accused of commanding a fatal ambush of McKay, Matthew L. Hilton and Mark Palmateer in Afghanistan in 2008. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The lawyer for an Afghan man awaiting trial in Manhattan federal court on charges that he commanded the Taliban fighters responsible in the killing of three American soldiers said Friday it was “preposterous” to charge his client in deaths that occurred in a war the U.S. started.

Attorney Mark Gombiner spoke at a pretrial hearing after his client, Haji Najibullah, pleaded not guilty to charges in a rewritten indictment released against him last week.

Najibullah was already charged in the 2008 gunpoint kidnapping of a reporter for The New York Times and another journalist. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

But the new indictment accused him of commanding the Taliban fighters responsible for a fatal ambush of the three service members in Afghanistan in 2008.

The attack killed Matthew L. Hilton, of Livonia, Michigan; Joseph A. McKay, of Brooklyn, and Mark Palmateer, of Poughkeepsie, New York. Najibullah was also charged with playing a role in the downing of a U.S. military helicopter later in the same year.

Gombiner said evidence will show the allegations are not true.

The lawyer said the deaths of American soldiers was an “immense tragedy.”

“Nobody disputes that,” Gombiner said.

But he said it “is preposterous” that his client should be held responsible for murder in a U.S. courtroom for the death of “American soldiers fighting in a war commenced by the United States.”

U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla interrupted Gombiner, accusing him of having “gone off on a huge P.R. campaign.”

She added: “I want you to talk to me and not the press.”

The lawyer, however, said prosecutors were to blame for publicizing the charges through a news release “that was circulated around the world.” The lawyer noted that he refused to comment when reporters asked him about the new charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told the judge that Gombiner was raising arguments “that have been raised and dismissed before, particularly as it relates to the Taliban.”

Najibullah, 45, was extradited to the United States last year to face charges including hostage taking, conspiracy and kidnapping.

The original indictment charged him with orchestrating the abduction of David Rohde, who then worked for The New York Times, and Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin, when they were on their way to interview a Taliban leader.

Both men made a dramatic escape from a Taliban-controlled compound in Pakistan’s tribal areas more than seven months after their Nov. 10, 2008, kidnapping. Their driver, Asadullah Mangal, was a third kidnapping victim. He escaped a few weeks after Ludin and Rohde.