Discuss as:

Prosecutors: High-level heroin trafficker supplied Taliban

An Afghan merchant believed to have once trafficked a fifth of the world's heroin was sentenced to life in prison in U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

In court, Judge Ellen S. Huvelle said the merchant, Haji Bagcho, was the second person to be convicted of narco-terrorism.

Prosecutors said Bagcho manufactured heroin in labs along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and that he sent heroin to more than 20 countries, including the U.S. They also said Bagcho, believed to be in his 70s, paid Taliban commanders to support terrorism; his defense argued he did so to avoid trouble.

The U.S. government started investigating Bagcho in 2005, around the time that he and his son allegedly traveled to Japan to refine a load of heroin that had changed color.

At the time, he lived in a compound in Marco Village, located near a highway that connects Kabul to Pakistan.

Bagcho’s heroin was considered some of the highest quality in Afghanistan, according to court documents. His chemist, Farman Shah, was referred to as “spin mal,” a term for white, high quality, injectable heroin.  

In court, prosecutors said Bagcho used mules to export his drugs – women would fast for a week at his compound before ingesting pellets of heroin. One group of women, believed to have been headed for the U.S., was caught in Pakistan.

Parwiz / Reuters

Afghan farmers work in a poppy field in Jalalabad province. Heroin is derived from poppies.

 During a 2007 search of Bagcho’s compound, agents found ledgers that recorded 125,000 kilograms of heroin valued at $250 million. Based on United Nations figures, that's nearly 20 percent of the heroin market.

Read the government's trial memorandum

Bagcho was arrested on May 24, 2009. He was in U.S. court one month later, charged on four counts, including distributing heroin he knew was bound for the U.S. and “knowing and intending to provide anything of value to a person or organization engaged in terrorism or terrorist activity.”

His eldest son and co-defendant, Sucha Gul, was arrested in January by NATO forces. Gul remains in custody. Another co-defendant, Zahir Shah, who owned a shop at a currency bazaar in Jalalabad, remains at large.

The government built its case partly on the testimony of confidential sources. Informants included a man who met Bagcho in the late 1990s at his father’s opium shop in a large opium bazaar. Bagcho was a frequent visitor and customer, according to court documents.  

Another informant was an errand boy for Bagcho who doubled as a religious teacher to his children.  Court documents say the man was raised by Bagcho and that although the man was illiterate, he knew the Koran by heart from time spent at a madrassa.  

The defense argued the case was largely circumstantial, and that no one had actually witnessed Bagcho distribute heroin – nor could it be proven that the ledgers were his.

The defense also noted that the Drug Enforcement Agency had handsomely paid the informants – one received more than $40,000 to cooperate.

More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:

Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world