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Afghan is sentenced to death in killing of foreign journalists

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan judges sentenced a man to death yesterday in the slaying of three foreign journalists and an Afghan colleague, who were pulled from their cars, robbed, and shot as they rushed to cover the collapse of the Taliban.

The judges also convicted Reza Khan of raping an Italian reporter before she died in one of the deadliest attacks on foreign civilians since the fall of the former hard-line regime.

"You are sentenced to death," Abdul Baset Bakhtyari, the presiding judge, told Khan at Afghanistan's Primary National Security Court.

Armed men stopped the journalists as they drove from the city of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, to the capital Nov. 19, 2001, six days after the Taliban abandoned Kabul following heavy US bombing.

The four were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Afghan photographer Azizullah Haidari of Reuters news agency, Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo. Afghan media had speculated that enraged Taliban and Al Qaeda forces falling back from Kabul had killed the reporters.

It was unclear whether Khan, who listened impassively as the verdict was announced, would appeal the death sentence or a separate 15-year jail term for committing "adultery by force" with Cutuli. In court, he denied committing the killings or the rape.

Italian diplomats observing the trial declined to comment on the conviction.

In a confession broadcast on Afghan state television in August, Khan admitted shooting one of the foreigners -- it was unclear which -- and raping Cutuli. He said the motive was banditry rather than politics.

Appearing in court Wednesday wearing a traditional woolen cap and a yellow blanket around his shoulders, Khan denied the rape charge and said another member of the gang called Rohullah shot the journalists.

He acknowledged that he was present during the killings. He said the gang had to follow the orders of a militia commander called Mohammed Agha.

Khan also admitted shooting dead one of his three wives with a pistol, because she had run away after an argument.

"I apologize to all the foreigners and other Afghans in this room," he said. "I'm not a murderer. I haven't killed any journalists."

Khan said Agha was a commander in the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s who later allied with the Taliban and maintained control of an area near the town of Surobi after the militia's demise.

He said Agha had forced him and the others to set up a roadblock to prey on passing motorists. Prosecutors say the journalists' equipment was stolen and sold.

Khan was arrested earlier this year on evidence provided by a man identified as Mahmoud who has been sentenced to 16 years in jail. Khan said Rohullah and another man named Shah Agha are also in custody. It was unclear when they might be tried. Mohammed Agha and other suspects remain at large.

Afghanistan recently resumed carrying out death penalties, which were suspended with the Taliban's fall, despite concern that its run-down legal system cannot guarantee a fair trial.

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