June 30, 2005

Afghan drug suspect’s NY arrest political -lawyer

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The lawyer for an Afghan tribal leaderaccused of being a leading drug trafficker said on Thursday hisclient's arrest in New York was politically motivated and aimedat weakening his tribe as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Bashir Noorzai was arrested in April after being identifiedby President Bush as one of the world's most-wanted drugtraffickers.

Noorzai was indicted on charges he conspired to import morethan $50 million worth of heroin into the United States andEurope. A U.S. prosecutor said he also provided weapons andmanpower and was closely linked to the former Taliban regimeand its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

After a hearing in Manhattan federal court on ThursdayNoorzai's lawyer, Stephen Goldenberg, said Noorzai believed hewas arrested as a political ploy by an administration thatbacks the government of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.He denied the narcotics charges.

"Politically, he feels that his arrest was engineered toweaken his side because they are considered to be Talibansupporters," said Goldenberg.

U.S-led forces overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban governmentin 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda and its chief, Osama bin Laden,the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks that year on America.

Remnants of the Taliban have been waging an insurgencysince then, and U.S.-led troops remain in Afghanistan.

Goldenberg said Noorzai traveled to the United States forwhat he believed to be a political meeting with U.S. officials,before being lured to a Manhattan hotel room and handcuffed byfederal authorities. U.S. officials have given no details onwhere and how Noorzai was arrested.

"He (Noorzai) came to New York City under his own power,"said Goldenberg, adding Noorzai had no previous knowledge ofany pending charges or that he was wanted as a drug kingpin."He agreed (to come) because his conscience was clear."

The indictment said Noorzai's organization provided weaponsand manpower to the Taliban in exchange for protection ofNoorzai's drug crops, labs, drug routes and associates.

The indictment said that since about 1990 Noorzai led aninternational trafficking organization importing heroin fromPakistan and Afghanistan into U.S. cities, including New York.

Goldenberg said Noorzai had lost 30 pounds (13 kg) sincebeing held in prison and had difficulty eating and praying.

He denied any link to al Qaeda and dealt with the Talibanonly in his role as a major tribal leader, Goldenberg said.

"Being a supporter of a legitimate government doesn't makeyou a criminal," he said. The U.S. Attorneys office would notcomment on the arrest.