RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - A federal judge in Virginia in the case of a former Russian army officer accused of fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan asked attorneys in the case on Thursday to focus on whether as a war combatant he was protected from criminal prosecution.
Irek Hamidullin, who is believed to be in his 50s, is the first military prisoner from Afghanistan to appear in a federal court in the United States.
“I’m obviously blazing a new frontier here,” U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson said at a hearing in Richmond, Virginia, where he pressed attorneys with questions on whether Hamidullin was a war combatant under the Geneva Conventions.
“Try to focus on statutes that show that the defendant is a lawful or unlawful combatant. This is somewhat of a clouded issue, murky at best,” Hudson told attorneys for both sides.
Hamidullin was a Russian officer and tank commander in the early 1980s who became a follower of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar in about 2001, according to U.S. authorities.
He was captured in Afghanistan following a 2009 attack on U.S. and Afghan forces at a police base and a federal grand jury last year indicted him on charges that include aiding terrorists, attempting to destroy a U.S. military aircraft and attempting to kill a U.S. citizen.
At the hearing on Thursday, Hudson said he will rule within two to three weeks on a request by Hamidullin’s attorneys to dismiss the charges.
Hamidullin, who faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His defense team has argued the charges should be dismissed because he is a war combatant under the Geneva Conventions and cannot be prosecuted for legitimate acts of war.
Hudson questioned defense attorney Geremy Kamens on that point and the application of U.S. law to the case.
“Under you arguments, every terrorist in America ... could raise their hand and say, ‘I’m Taliban,’ and can’t be prosecuted. Isn’t that your argument?” Hudson said.
“No,” Kamens said. “The conduct must be consistent with the law of war. It must be against a military target.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill contends the Taliban have no legal standing in Afghanistan, and he stressed they have slaughtered civilians and committed atrocities.
“There is no recognized authority behind the defendant’s conduct,” Gill said.
Hamidullin, who is held in jail, is scheduled to face trial in July.
Reporting by Gary Robertson; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric Beech