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For Immediate Release

PHR Calls for Probe into Removal of Mass Grave in Afghanistan

Cambridge, Mass - 12/12/2008

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Reports that Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum removed evidence of potential war crimes from the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave in northern Afghanistan, as revealed yesterday by McClatchy Newspapers, demand investigation both in Afghanistan and in the United States, stated Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Dasht-e-Leili is allegedly the burial location of as many as 2,000 prisoners who surrendered to the Afghan Northern Alliance and to US Special Forces in November 2001 after the fall of the Afghan city of Kunduz. According to reports, General Dostum’s forces suffocated the prisoners in sealed cargo containers during transport, then buried them at the site.

"Removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated,” said Frank Donaghue, Chief Executive Officer of PHR. "The Afghan Government, with the support of the UN and the international community, must move quickly to protect the site.”

PHR researchers discovered the mass grave in January 2002. The human rights group’s forensic experts examined the site under the auspices of the UN in May 2002, producing a full report of their findings. Subsequently, PHR experts contracted to the UN exhumed the remains of fifteen individuals from the mass grave, and conducted autopsies on three of these, determining that the cause of their deaths was consistent with suffocation. The experts concluded that the deaths were homicides. For seven years, PHR has advocated to the United Nations, the Afghan Government, the United States, and other NATO countries for a full investigation of the alleged massacre and for protection of the evidence contained in the gravesite.

”This destruction is a devastating blow to the effort to learn the truth of Dasht-e-Leili,” said Donaghue. "The US and the Afghan Government must finally fulfill their responsibilities under international law.”

In June 2006, as part of its ongoing investigation of Dasht-e-Leili, PHR filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request with the US Department of Defense, the State Department, and the CIA. PHR today released the US Government’s 2008 response to the FOIA.

The FOIA response reveals startling information that contradicts official US public statements. The Bush Administration stated in 2002 that only several dozen prisoners had died during transport to Sheberghan prison after surrendering to General Dostum and to US Special Forces. The FOIA response, however, contains a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that approximately four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. Despite having this information, the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes.

"The Bush Administration’s willful failure to investigate Dasht-e-Leili is a stark example of its disregard for international and US standards of detainee treatment,” stated Donaghue.

The FOIA response calls into question the US Government’s inaction in light of its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These laws require full investigation and accountability for war crimes undertaken by allies during joint military operations. During the time in question, US Army and CIA personnel were advising, equipping and protecting General Dostum, and both parties received the prisoners who surrendered at Kunduz.

PHR Recommendations

  • The Afghan Government should be supported in an investigation with the assistance of the UN, the United States and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). Any remains or evidence of criminal activity at Dasht-e-Leili must be secured immediately and witnesses must be protected.
  • Congress, the Pentagon and the CIA must finally publicly determine the extent of US responsibility for these alleged atrocities and disclose who in the US Government knew what about the alleged murder of the prisoners and what they did or did not do about it.
  • The Afghan Government must register and protect other mass grave sites in Afghanistan. It must be made clear to the Afghan people and the international community which authorities have responsibility over each location.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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