NEW YORK (Reuters) - An accused Afghan heroin kingpin went on trial on Tuesday in a case that his lawyers said will show how the United States once cooperated with and then turned against an international drug smuggler.
Jury selection began in the case of Bashir Noorzai, 47, a former tribal leader suspected of smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Noorzai was arrested in April 2005 after being identified by President George W. Bush as one of the world’s most wanted drug traffickers. U.S. officials compared him to legendary Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar, calling him “the Pablo Escobar of heroin trafficking in Asia.”
Prosecutors say he was a Taliban ally who led an international trafficking organization since 1990 that manufactured heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But defense lawyers argue that Noorzai was improperly lured to the United States after a history of cooperating with the U.S. government in Afghanistan in the 1990s and following the September 11 attacks, providing information and turning over weaponry, including U.S. stinger missiles.
They say U.S. representatives from the Defense department and FBI had promised Noorzai in a meeting in Dubai that he would not be arrested if he traveled to the United States.
Besides focusing on Afghanistan’s drug trade, the case may explore U.S. dealings with drug smugglers for political or security purposes.
Noorzai flew to New York voluntarily in 2005 and told Drug Enforcement Administration agents he had come to meet with U.S. officials to discuss Afghanistan’s future, court papers said.
Noorzai’s lawyers have argued that Noorzai, a former leader of the one million-member Noorzai tribe, did not know he was being investigated when questioned by agents over 11 days in a Manhattan hotel room.
Prosecutors said Noorzai gave the Taliban explosives and weapons in return for protection of his opium crops.
They said Noorzai controlled fields where poppies were grown and harvested to make opium, and his organization used laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan to process the opium into heroin and arranged for it to be transported to other countries.
U.S.-led forces overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001 for failing to turn over Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda militants, but attacks by Islamist militants have soared in the past to years.
U.S. officials in Washington have linked Noorzai to bin Laden and al Qaeda, saying in return for helping finance the group it helped him move his drugs offshore, but the New York case has so far made no mention of cooperation with al Qaeda.
The trial could last up to a month.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Jackie Frank