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PHR Newsletter, Winter/Spring 2012

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PHR's online and print newsletter: Winter/Spring 2012 edition

Table of Contents:

Message from the Executive Director
Iranian Doctors Released
Forensic Science at PHR: CSI Human Rights
Witnessing Justice for Victims of Karadžić
Prosecuting Mass Rape in the DRC

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Message from the Executive Director

Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring began, we’ve been to Bahrain to stop the brutal suppression of peaceful protests. We’ve examined massacre sites in Libya and are helping ensure that critical evidence is preserved for trials and justice for victims. In Egypt and Syria we’re showing how government attacks on medics are used to intimidate and oppress entire communities. And we’re working to ensure that these attacks are treated as violations of fundamental human rights.

Our work extends far beyond the Middle East. We’re supporting a local team of forensic experts who are helping Afghanistan confront its violent past and build a peaceful future. We’re creating a community of medical and legal experts in Africa to prosecute those who have used rape as a weapon of war and oppression.

Donna McKayAround the world, our ability to harness the power of forensic science and medicine means justice for survivors, accountability for perpetrators, and a foundation for a world based on human rights.

Your support makes our work possible. On behalf of everyone we help, thank you for your support.

Sincerely yours,
Donna McKay


Iranian Doctors Released

An Ordinary Day

For nearly ten years, Arash and Kamiar Alaei received accolades for their pioneering work treating HIV/AIDS patients in Iran. Although their patients (prisoners, drug users, sex-workers, and others with HIV/AIDS) were de-valued members of society, the doctors practiced without discrimination. Their model, integrating prevention, medical care, and social support was hailed globally as a “best practice” approach.

The brothers studied abroad, presented at international conferences, and garnered respect from medical colleagues, including Iran’s Ministry of Health and Red Crescent Society. They never received a direct threat, or even a whispered warning, that their work put them at personal risk under the conservative Iranian regime.

Suddenly, on an otherwise ordinary day in June 2008, military officers seized the brothers. Arash was arrested at a gas station and Kamiar was taken from their parents’ home.

Descent into Darkness

Without a formal charge, they were cast into the largest and most notorious prison in Iran, Evin Prison. In the high security basement block, Section 209, they were separated from each other and held in full solitary confinement. During the next three months they were blindfolded, beaten, and pressed to confess to false charges.

The doctors were shocked when they learned their supposed crime: “seeking to overthrow the Iranian government” under article 508 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code. At their one-day, closed-door trial they were charged with “conspiring with an enemy government,” and additional secret crimes that were never revealed at trial. Kamiar received a three-year prison term and Arash was sentenced to six years.

Their deepest fear was that they were forgotten. They didn’t know that PHR had launched a “Free the Docs” campaign, organizing medical colleagues all over the world to speak out for the Alaeis. When family members manage totransmit a message about the international campaign, they describe that news as a gift of “new blood that warmed our hearts and gave us energy to be strong.”

Practicing Public Health in Prison

After eight months in Section 209, the brothers were released into the general prison population. They were not allowed to practice medicine, but immediately initiated programs to improve the health of prisoners.

They introduced basic hygiene programs such as routine hand washing to curb dysentery. They gave talks on HIV, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases and created “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections of the prison yard. They started a prisoner-run language academy and sports competitions.

The daily ration of bread at Evin prison was the awful product of a sub-standard bakery. When assigned to kitchen duty, the doctors approached this problem as a public health challenge. They gained permission to scrub and upgrade the bakery, improving both the bread and the prison’s sanitary conditions.


Drs. Arash & Kamiar Alaei

In the fall of 2010, Kamiar was released after serving “870 days, 20,800 hours.” Though grateful, he spoke passionately about his brother’s continued imprisonment saying, “In Arash, part of my heart is still in prison.”

In June 2011, the Global Health Council honored the Alaeis with the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. In remarks that evening, Susannah Sirkin, PHR Deputy Director, acknowledged that Arash’s absence made the evening bittersweet, “a cup half full.” PHR’s global campaign continued until Arash was finally released at the end of August, 2011.

The brothers are now in residence at the State University of New York at Albany where they hope to start an interdisciplinary center for health and human rights. In December 2011 they received the World Health Organization’s first human rights award. They have also agreed to serve as advisors to PHR’s Colleagues at Risk Program.

In a letter to PHR members and all those who called for their release, the Alaeis wrote: “We learned that if you believe in what you are doing, you must continue your work, until the last moment of your life. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for compaigning for our freedom.”

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Forensic Science at PHR: CSI Human Rights

Made for TV

There is a current fascination with forensic medicine, propagated by television crime dramas.  In just one hour (44 minutes without commercials) the victim is identified, the cause of death is established and the perpetrator is charged and convicted. While forensic science has the power to do these things, justice moves at a radically different pace: the process could take years, or even decades.

Real World Forensics

PHR pioneered the use of forensics in human rights investigations and is still on the cutting edge; it was a core expertise when PHR was founded 25 years ago, and it continues to cut across all program and geographic areas.  Forensic investigation is deeply embedded in PHR’s DNA.

Forensic science serves justice by illuminating the past. “Victims and their families can’t rest, and communities can’t reconcile until the truth is acknowledged,” said Stefan Schmitt, director of PHR’s International Forensic Program (IFP). “Forensic investigation is more than identifying bones. There are concrete legal and humanitarian dividends.”


A forensic examination is a legal investigation that must meet the criteria for evidence in a court of law, including the ability to sustain cross-examination. The chain of custody must be documented for every element: date and time stamp on photos, preservation on a primary electronic device (not multiple discs and drives), all signed and sealed by the forensic investigator. 

“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is not evidence unless there is documentation on who took the photo, when and where it was taken, and how it was handled,” explains Schmitt.


When conducting a forensic investigation, PHR taps leading experts in pathology, forensic anthropology, ballistics, and firearm analysis. These consultants serve voluntarily in PHR overseas investigations and may also testify in resulting legal cases.


The tools of the forensic trade are a fascinating combination of century-old archeological implements and high-tech devices. Markers, measuring tape, trowel, brushes, compass, flashlight, and Leatherman multi-tools are the excavators. Digital cameras document each element and provide the megapixel detail that can uncover the truth. GPS devices plot a site more accurately than a map and establish pinpoints for aerial and satellite monitoring.


DNA technology is the hero in the forensic toolbox. It links the cause and manner of death with the actual identities of the victims.

In addition to the DNA laboratory work, the field experience of the investigators is crucial. The PHR International Forensic Program works with top geneticists who have examined mass fatalities such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in the US.


SPOTLIGHT – Afghanistan

There are perhaps hundreds of mass graves in Afghanistan, the legacy of decades of war. Due to ongoing conflict, there is a strong possibility that sites could be obliterated before forensic examinations can be conducted.

Not all tampering at a site might be cover-ups by perpetrators. Mass grave sites may be disturbed by: family members seeking to re-claim the bodies of loved ones; community members creating memorials to honor the dead; factions erecting martyr markers to politicize the fate of those who died for their cause; religious followers wishing to perform re-burials according to their faith; deliberate desecration; or retribution. Simple development and construction projects, weather events and natural disasters, can also be evidence destroyers.

Because Afghanistan has a great need but scarce resources, PHR developed Securing Afghanistan’s Past, an innovative program that trained paraprofessionals to preserve sites for future investigation. In the summer of 2010, 18 enthusiastic Afghans participated in the 5-week course. The participants were drawn from governmental as well as civil society organizations, including the National Police, the Ministry of Interior, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Afghan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, and the Civil Society and Human Rights Network.

Stefan Schmitt of PHR led the training course, joined by forensic anthropologist Gillian Fowler of the University of Lincoln UK, and Detective Frank Thomas of the German Police Project Team (GPPT).

Each paraprofessional received a forensic kit and four weeks of technical training in human osteology and site documentation and preservation. The course culminated in a weeklong exhumation and analysis of skeletal remains discovered on the grounds of the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. The students’ knowledge of human bones was also applied at a rumored massacre site, subsequently proven to be an abandoned animal butchery area.

Results: in addition to building forensic capacity, “Securing Afghanistan’s Past” helped create a new building block of Afghan society. It was a deep point of pride and civic progress for the Afghans that the course was conducted at the Afghan National Police Academy, not on a foreign military base. The program graduates continue to meet on a voluntary basis, forming a new civil organization, the Afghan Forensic Society (AFSO).  AFSO will receive 2012 funding for a one-year program to document and secure mass gravesites in three different Afghan provinces. The objective is to develop formal acknowledgement of the existence of the sites, and a judicial response. PHR will continue to play a pivotal role in providing the expertise and training in supporting AFSO’s work.



Stefan Schmitt examining forensic evidence, Libya 2011
Forensic Expert, IFP Director Stefan Schmitt, examines evidence at a massacre site in Tripoli.

When the fog of battle lifted in Libya last year, there was news of an atrocity reportedly commitment by the Libyan military’s elite 32nd Brigade. Under the command of Col. Qaddafi’s son Khamis, the Brigade battled rebels and international forces in a last-stand battle for control of Tripoli. As the fighting wore on, Brigade members began to seize local men, beating and torturing them inside trucks parked in an agricultural compound. After cycles of brutality lasting several days, the broken men were imprisoned in a metal-clad shed that held 153 men without adequate water, food, or sanitary facilities.

As rebel forces advanced, there were bungled attempts to conceal these crimes. When the 32nd Brigade finally fled on August 23, the captors burned the shed with the prisoners inside. Approximately 51 incinerated corpses were found in the shed. Additional bodies were scattered throughout the courtyard, with bullet wounds that supported the testimony of survivors who made a daring escape.

PHR launched an investigative mission, documented the site, interviewed survivors and one confessed perpetrator, conducted preliminary examinations of the bodies and reported consistencies between forensic evidence and interviews. PHR released a public report on the massacre in December 2011. A forensic crime scene report was also issued to Libyan authorities and the International Criminal Court. Recommended: further investigation, to include DNA identification of the victims, as a right for their families and a basis for legal action.

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Witnessing Justice for Victims of Karadžić

by Susannah Sirkin, PHR Deputy Director

I walk into Court Room 1 on Tuesday morning, January 31, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Arriving on this long-imagined scene is surreal. There, just on the other side of the thick one-way glass, is Dr. William (Bill) Haglund, former director of our International Forensic Program, sitting at the witness table. He’s staring at the reddened face and shocking white head of hair of Radovan Karadžić, whose face I know from years of newspaper images and “wanted” posters.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Karadžić was indicted by the Tribunal in 2009 for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Muslim population of Bosnia. He is finally on trial for these many crimes, including the massacre of thousands of men and boys separated from their families when his troops overran a UN safe haven at Srebrenica in 1995.

I practically burst into tears as I stare straight ahead at the row of judges in red robes who are presiding over this historic case. An agitated Dr. Karadžić fidgets and rubs his hands together, apparently formulating his next question as he takes up his own defense and cross-examination of Bill.

For years, the government refused to hand over Dr. Karazdžić, and many of us feared this day would never come.

Forensic team working at a grave site in Srebrenica
PHR forensic teams toiled for many months in 1996 to exhume the mass graves in and around Srebrenica, Bosnia.

Even though I’m watching him, I find it hard to believe that Bill is finally able to present the validity and credibility of the excruciating months of work done by PHR teams in 1996 to exhume the mass graves in and around this enclave in Bosnia.

I’m recalling that at one point during the weeks of excavations led by Bill and conducted by an international team of PHR archaeologists, anthropologists, and pathologists, Bill rolled out a sleeping back and slept at the edge of one of the graves. The UN Protection Forces only had a mandate to guard live humans, not human remains, and sleeping next to the dead was the only way Bill could safeguard the integrity of the site and make sure no one tampered with the evidence.

Bill is deliberate and even professorial. At one point Karadžić asks Bill how he was able to come to the conclusion that the bodies in the graves were those of civilians rather than combatants. Bill responds that combatants don’t wear blindfolds.

Karadžić then asks if they might not have been blindfolds but rather Muslim warrior head-bands that slipped down and landed over the eyes of the buried bodies. Bill answers curtly that these were tied tightly and didn’t move up over the eyes or down below them.

As Karadžić continues in a haphazard way to grasp for holes in the evidence or testimony, I’m filled with pride and gratitude for Bill, the trial lawyers, and the many PHR scientists whose persistence and patience that have brought us to this day.

I’m hoping that the thousands of loved ones who lost fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons will see a measure of justice in this trial. In the end, justice may come slowly, but it will come.

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Prosecuting Mass Rape in DRC

by Karen Naimer, Director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

Kahele, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Last October, PHR’s Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin and I had the opportunity to observe an appeals hearing in Kalehe, a small village in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for a case concerning the abduction, mass rape, sexual enslavement, and murder of local women.

Kahlele was the site of a “mobile court” sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders), the UN Development Program, and the Congolese government. For two weeks, the judges would hear cases of mass atrocity in the war-ravaged eastern part of the county.

the accused in the courtroom
Accused rapists face the judges in a DRC tribunal. October 2011.

Their Day in Court

On the day we visited, the accused—two young men dressed in short-sleeved yellow jump-suits—stood blankly facing the front of a modest, one room brick building, clasping their hands behind their backs as two armed Congolese military officers flanked them on either side. The accused were alleged to have been members of the FDLR militia (the Hutu-dominated “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda”) involved in the abduction and sexual enslavement of hundreds of women.

In a dusty yard behind the building, 19 women survivors—some sitting on a flat stone wall and some squatting on the ground with their small children—waited. These women had traveled a long way from their villages, where many of them had been stigmatized by the sexual violation, rejected by their families, and shunned by their own communities. Despite what these women had already suffered, they bravely came to face the accused and claim their day in court.

Justice is sometimes difficult to define and its effects are often fleeting. So what is justice for these courageous women? The women we met at Kalehe are not likely to obtain much, if anything, by way of compensation. But their presence at court that day—to tell their story and face the accused—was a powerful, humbling demonstration that the judicial process has some reparative value. These women came to the little rural courthouse to reclaim some of the dignity that was stolen from them. Their hunger for justice is an inspiration to all those who work to confront sexual violence in conflict zones.

Bending the Arc of Justice

Recently, PHR launched its Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones to help improve meaningful access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. PHR is working with many experts in eastern DRC and Kenya, including doctors, nurses, social workers, police officials, lawyers, and judges who often serve as first responders to survivors of sexual violence.

On January 26-28, 2012, we convened our first forensic training workshop in DRC with these stakeholders. Our shared goal is to improve methods for the forensic collection, documentation, and preservation of evidence so that more cases of sexual violence succeed in court. And through these workshops, we are hoping to facilitate a network for informal communication among professionals on the ground to help bolster the medical and legal process of documenting and prosecuting these crimes.

We are privileged to be working with a wonderfully committed group of individuals and organizations in Kenya and eastern DRC, and over the next few years, we hope to work with similar stakeholders in South Sudan, Uganda, and Central African Republic as well.

The journey toward justice is long but with courage, strength, and persistence, together we will bend the proverbial arc in the right direction.

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