KABUL - For a man whose life already resembles an airport spy thriller it was shaping up to be the most frightening chapter yet.
Convicted of illegal bounty-hunting in Afghanistan, flamboyant ex-US soldier Jonathan ‘Jack’ Idema faced his toughest-ever mission after being sentenced to 10 years in the country’s grimmest jail.
Even for the former Green Beret, arrested in July for running his own private jail, the prospect of a decade in Pol-i-Charki, a filthy Soviet-era fortress, was likely to put his skills of survival to the test.
But as with all good thriller plots, there has now been an unexpected twist. To the astonishment of other prisoners, Idema and his two American co-defendants have been given their own private set of rooms where they live in relative luxury.
Behind Pol-i-Charki’s forbidding bullet-scarred and bomb-blackened walls, which bristle with machine-guns, their apartment-style suite is complete with satellite TV, Persian carpets, private bathroom and kitchen.
Ready-meals, chocolate and other snacks are brought in from shops supplying Westerners in Kabul, while the three have exercise periods in private to avoid attacks from al-Qaeda-linked inmates.
Idema’s escape from what might otherwise have been a decade-long Midnight Express ordeal is just the latest turn in his bizarre and controversial exploits in Afghanistan.
The 48-year-old New Yorker was arrested amid worldwide publicity in July after police raided a compound in Kabul and found eight Afghan men who said they had been tortured by his private security outfit.
The case caused huge embarrassment for the US government when Idema, who joined the Green Berets after watching a John Wayne film, then claimed he was on a clandestine Pentagon-approved mission to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists and Osama bin Laden.
Sentenced alongside him to 10 years and eight years respectively were Brent Bennett, a fellow ex-soldier from California, and Edward Caraballo, from New York, an award-winning film maker who claimed he was making a documentary.
Following a spell on the jail’s main wing, all three were moved into segregated accommodation some weeks ago after an inmate threatened to attack Caraballo.
Yet comfortable or not, the real debate now is just how much longer the trio’s confinement will last.
After a highly publicised and chaotic trial, in which Idema claims he was prevented from conducting a proper defence, an appeal on his conviction is due at the end of this month.
While a jailbreak might be more Idema’s style, rumours are now circulating that all three will be freed in a deal between Washington and the Afghan government.
"This was apparently agreed between Washington and Afghanistan before the trial went ahead," said one insider. "The idea was that he would at least do a bit of time to show that justice had been done, but would then be let out on appeal shortly afterwards to bring the thing to a close."
Whatever the outcome, the appeal will once again focus attention on what Idema, a macho figure with his ever-present sunglasses, Afghan headscarf and sidearms, was doing in Afghanistan in the first place.
Was he simply an illicit fantasist running amok in a lawless land, as the prosecution alleged? Or, as he claims, was he a Pentagon-sanctioned "black ops" commando doing the US military’s dirty work for them?
From the outset, the Pentagon, still reeling from the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq, insisted he had never worked for them in any capacity.
Choice revelations about his past - including his jail term for fraud, undistinguished military assessments from commanding officers, and his legendary temper - somewhat bolstered that theory.
Supporters, though, see him as a maverick but highly effective operator in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Driven by a mixture of American patriotism and greed, he hoped his methods would eventually net him the al-Qaeda leader and a $25m reward.
Either way, the truth had little chance of emerging at the trial, a shambolic affair highlighting the dire state of the Afghan judicial system. Idema’s lawyers were prevented from producing tape recordings of alleged talks with senior US military officials, or questioning witnesses who testified against them.
At this month’s appeal, though, lawyers for Idema and Caraballo are planning to protest in absentia.
Caraballo’s attorney Robert Fogelnest told Scotland on Sunday: "An appeal has been filed, but from my previous experience with the trial I have no belief that the Afghan system is capable of dealing with the issues. This whole issue is a political situation, and will be resolved politically."
If a political deal is under way, neither Fogelnest, nor Idema’s lawyer John Tiffany, claim to be aware of it.
Both have been calling for a full Congressional inquiry into the whole issue of private soldiering in Afghanistan and what US officials knew about it.
In the meantime, says Fogelnest, the three deserve all the privileges they can get. "When they first went there they were in conditions that weren’t fit for an animal, let alone a human being.
"Everybody is talking about them getting good treatment, but the bottom line is that they are still in Pol-i-Charki prison. If their condition has improved, then God bless."
He now believes their release will only come through appeals to newly elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is currently picking his Cabinet after sweeping to power last month.
Whether a deal will indeed go ahead only time will tell. Only one thing is certain - if the next chapter in Idema’s life is anything like the last few, it would never be wise to rule out the unexpected.
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