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The New York Times is reporting new evidence that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Afghanistan. This major investigative piece, now available online and slated for the front page of the July 11 print edition, represents the culmination of nearly eight years of investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, where I serve as Chief Communications Officer.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has issued a call for a criminal probe in the wake of a major New York Times story with new evidence that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan in 2002.

PHR is calling for the Department of Justice to investigate why the Bush Administration impeded an FBI criminal probe of the alleged Dasht-e-Leili massacre.


According to US government documents obtained by PHR, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were reportedly suffocated in container trucks by Afghan forces operating jointly with the US in November 2001. The bodies were reportedly buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert near Sheberghan, Afghanistan. Notorious Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was reportedly on the CIA payroll, is allegedly responsible for the massacre.

Physicians for Human Rights, which shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, first documented the existence of the alleged mass grave in January 2002 and since then:

•        Advocated for witnesses to be protected, the mass grave site to be secured, and for a full and impartial investigation;

•        Conducted preliminary forensic investigations -- including exposing 15 remains and conducting three autopsies -- under UN auspices at Dasht-e-Leili;

•        Successfully sued for compliance with a PHR Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the release of US government documents that reveal US intelligence knowledge of the magnitude of the alleged crime and awareness of the execution and torture of witnesses to the incidents;

•        Helped identify the US chain of command likely responsible for impeding federal investigations into the alleged massacre;

•        Discovered and reported on alleged tampering of the site; and

•        Requested satellite image analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that appears to demonstrate that tampering occurred soon after PHR filed its FOIA request in June 2006.

"Physicians for Human Rights went to investigate inhumane conditions at a prison in northern Afghanistan, but what we found was much worse," stated Susannah Sirkin, PHR Deputy Director. "Our researchers documented an apparent mass grave site with reportedly thousands of bodies of captured prisoners who were suffocated to death in trucks. That was 2002; seven years later, we still seek answers about what exactly happened and who was involved."

Senior Bush Administration officials impeded investigations by the FBI and the State Department, and the Defense Department apparently never conducted a full inquiry, the New York Times reports in the story for the July 11 print edition by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter James Risen.

"The Bush Administration’s disregard for the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions led to torture of prisoners in Guantánamo and many other secret places," noted Nathaniel Raymond, PHR’s lead researcher on Dasht-e-Leili. "Contrary to the legal opinions of the previous Department of Justice, the principles of the Geneva Conventions are non-negotiable, as is their enforcement. President Obama must open a full and transparent criminal probe and prosecute any US officials found to have broken the law."

"The State Department’s statement to the New York Times that suspected war crimes should be thoroughly investigated indicates a move towards full accountability," added Raymond. "We stand ready to aid the US government in investigating this massacre. It is time for the cover-up to end."

Sirkin added, "President Obama must set a different course by signaling publicly that in all of its operations anywhere in the world, the US and its allies will respect the Geneva Conventions and safeguard the rights of prisoners of war, as well as all captured combatants and detainees to be treated humanely."

PHR reiterated its call on the Government of Afghanistan, which has jurisdiction over the alleged mass grave site, to:

•        Secure the area with the assistance of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan);

•        Protect witnesses to the initial incident and the ensuing tampering; and

•        Ensure a full investigation of remaining evidence at the site, including the tracing of the substantial amount of soil that appears to have been removed in 2006.

"Gravesites have been tampered with, evidence has been destroyed, and witnesses have been tortured and killed," stressed Sirkin. "The Dasht-e-Leili mass grave site must finally be secured, all surviving witnesses must be protected, and the Government of Afghanistan, in coordination with the UN and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), must at last allow a full investigation to go forward."

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. PHR was founded in 1986 on the idea that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical commitments, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them. PHR mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity and justice and promotes the right to health for all. PHR has documented the systematic use of psychological and physical torture by US personnel against detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase and elsewhere.

PHR’s International Forensic Program (IFP) has conducted forensic assessments and investigations of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide in many countries. IFP is dedicated to providing independent forensic expertise to document and collect evidence of human rights violations and of violations of international humanitarian law. Since the 1980s, PHR has mobilized forensic scientists and other experts worldwide to respond to inquiries by governments, organizations, families and individuals.

On the Web:

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To obtain high-resolution photos courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, please visit

Disclosure: I am the Chief Communications Officer of Physicians for Human Rights.

UPDATE 1: Obama Administration officials told the Associated Press on Friday night that they had no grounds to investigate the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners of war who allegedly were massacred by U.S.-backed forces. These officials claim they lack legal grounds to probe these alleged war crimes because, the AP reports, "only foreigners were involved and the alleged killings occurred in a foreign country."

Physicians for Human Rights is preparing a rebuttal of this ill-considered argument.

UPDATE 2: Statement by Physicians for Human Rights in Response to Comments by Obama Administration Officials

Cambridge, MA – Obama Administration officials stated Friday, as reported by Lara Jakes of the Associated Press, that they had no grounds to investigate the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners of war who allegedly were killed by U.S.-backed forces. These officials claim they lack legal grounds to probe these alleged war crimes because, the AP reports, "only foreigners were involved and the alleged killings occurred in a foreign country."

The officials' comments came in response to a New York Times report by James Risen that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Afghanistan.

"For US Government officials to claim that there is no legal basis to investigate this well-documented mass atrocity is absurd," stated Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin. "US military and intelligence personnel were operating jointly and accepted the surrender of the prisoners jointly with General Dostum’s forces in northern Afghanistan. The Obama Administration has a legal obligation to determine what US officials knew, where US personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre. These questions, nearly eight years later, remain unanswered."

"Furthermore," added Nathaniel Raymond, PHR’s lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case, "The New York Times has shown that the Bush Administration engaged in a coordinated effort to prevent this alleged war crime from ever being investigated. Under the Geneva Conventions, the cover-up of a war crime can itself constitute a war crime."

Originally posted to jhutson on Fri Jul 10, 2009 at 01:23 PM PDT.

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