Thursday, December 18, 2008

PHR: US Silent About Destruction of Mass Graves in Afghanistan

From a 12/11/08 story by Tom Lasseter at McClatchy Newspapers on the destruction of evidence of war crimes by a major U.S. ally in Afghanistan:
DASHT-E LEILI, Afghanistan — Seven years ago, a convoy of container trucks rumbled across northern Afghanistan loaded with a human cargo of suspected Taliban and al Qaida members who'd surrendered to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan warlord and a key U.S. ally in ousting the Taliban regime.

When the trucks arrived at a prison in the town of Sheberghan, near Dostum's headquarters, they were filled with corpses. Most of the prisoners had suffocated, and others had been killed by bullets that Dostum's militiamen had fired into the metal containers.
Dostum's men dumped around 2000 corpses into mass graves. Someone came by with bulldozers earlier this year and moved many of these corpses to some other site unknown, leaving "gaping pits in the sands of the Dasht-e-Leili desert" where once mass graves had been. Lasseter continues:
NATO — which has command authority over a team of troops less than three miles from the grave site — the United Nations and the United States have been silent about the destruction of evidence of Dostum's alleged war crimes.
Why the silence? Lasseter says there is speculation that Dostum, an ally of the U.S., who worked with Special Forces and the CIA during the time of the prisoner killings, is getting a "free pass" from Washington. U.S. government sources plead ignorance, while some at the UN admit they've turned to look the other way. A UN spokesperson explained:
"It's a judgment call we constantly strive to get right, and this is not the only instance where the choices we have to make can be extraordinarily tough ones."
Physicians for Human Rights' International Forensic examined the site for the UN in 2002. No one has directly implicated U.S. forces in the original deaths, but Special Forces units were certainly operating in the area. From the 2002 Newsweek article, "The Death Convoy of Afghanistan":
Over the three days that the first convoys of dead were arriving at Sheberghan, Special Forces troops were in the area. There was also a separate, four-man U.S. intelligence team, in combat gear, at the prison doing first selections of Qaeda suspects for further questioning. According to Pelton, a swashbuckling freelancer who specializes in writing about dangerous places, Special Forces soldiers were mainly concerned about security at the prison. At the same time the containers of dead were arriving, many truckloads of living prisoners were also streaming in: On the evening of Dec. 1, for instance, a container arrived bearing the 86 survivors from Qala Jangi. One of them was John Walker Lindh. It was the 595 team's medic, Bill, who first treated Lindh. Pelton believed at the time, and still does, that the dead from container trucks numbered "40-some odd" and were mostly people who died of wounds suffered in the siege of Konduz. "When I was with 595, we went over this time and again," says Pelton. "What happened is that these people basically died because they were wounded." A senior Defense Department official, speaking to NEWSWEEK on background, said the Pentagon asked the commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group to look into the reports of container deaths. That commander, Col. John Mulholland, reported back that the A-team knew that numbers, perhaps even large numbers, of Taliban prisoners had died on the journey to Sheberghan. But the Special Forces believed that these deaths had occurred from wounds or disease.
PHR is asking NATO to use their forces to help Afghan forces in protecting the mass grave site, so that no more evidence is destroyed, and to assist U.S., UN, and Afghan investigators. They have a web page dedicated to the the Dasht-e-Leili War Crimes Investigation.

While I can't believe that NATO or U.S. forces will work strenuously to investigate war atrocities, especially as atrocities continue in the U.S.-backed military occupation of the country, and put zero faith in either NATO or the U.S.'s ability to conduct such an impartial investigation. One wonders if the silence of the actors who knew about these crimes, and of their cover-up, are not guilty as a result of war crimes themselves, i.e., covering up a war crime is a war crime.

While critical of PHR on this point, I can totally solidarize with their CEO Frank Donaghue's statement on the situation last Monday:
As PHR knows from our work in Bosnia, Rwanda, Central America and elsewhere, communities that have lost loved ones in mass killings — especially the mothers, siblings, and children of victims — have a right to the truth and to justice, including identification and return of remains. The demands of mothers and families demonstrating in the streets of Kabul over the last few days show that the Afghan people are demanding that those who have committed mass atrocities be held accountable. Peace and stability require truth and justice; it never pays to ignore mass graves and the atrocities associated with them.
An international investigatory commission, independent of any government, and staffed by human rights representatives and other trusted citizens, including what representatives from the victims' families, in all the countries involved, perhaps sponsored by the UN or the ICC, should be formed to prosecute these kinds of cases, as the governments involved are too compromised. In the meantime, the work of PHR's forensic department, and the organization as a whole, deserves your support.

1 comment:

Jonathan Hutson said...

Thanks for the PHR plug, Valtin. Two updates:

(1) Tom Lasseter has just published his fourth piece on Dasht-e-Leili for McClatchy Newspapers. URL:

(2) PHR CEO Frank Donaghue has posted a statement on the impact of Madoff's Ponzi scheme -- which caused the closure of the JEHT Foundation, a major PHR supporter -- on our Campaign Against Torture. URL:

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