Warlord General Dostum’s Return to Kabul Sparks Controversy

Posted on Monday, Aug 17, 2009 at 4:39 pm by Ben Greenberg

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Rights Group Calls for Strengthening Rule of Law in Afghanistan

Media Contacts:
Jonathan Hutson
jhutson [at] phrusa [dot] org
Mobile: +1-857-919-5130

Cambridge, MA — In response to the return of a notorious warlord to Afghanistan from Turkey, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) renews the call it has made repeatedly over the past seven years for a full investigation of an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners who surrendered in November 2001 to US and Afghan forces and who are believed to be buried in the desert of Dasht-e-Leili.

On August 16, General Abdul Rashid Dostum — who is widely reported to be partly responsible for the massacre and for a subsequent cover-up — returned to Kabul to campaign for the re-election of President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 elections. It is widely reported that President Karzai has offered General Dostum a government post in exchange for his support.

“Real and lasting peace in Afghanistan will be made possible by strengthening the rule of law and ending the culture of impunity,” stated PHR CEO Frank Donaghue.

“Letting General Dostum return to any position of power before there is a thorough and transparent investigation into whether or to what extent he may have been involved in the alleged 2001 massacre, will be seen by the Afghan people as confirmation that warlords like Dostum have impunity for their crimes,” continued Donaghue. “General Dostum has admitted that these prisoners surrendered jointly to US special forces and to Northern Alliance troops under his command. As Physicians for Human Rights has said for 7 years since the organization’s experts discovered the alleged mass grave, the site must be secured, witnesses must be protected, and Afghanistan must join the international community in probing how these prisoners died and why General Dostum and the Bush administration reportedly impeded investigation into these alleged war crimes. PHR looks forward to appropriate action from President Obama after he receives a report from his national security team, whom he ordered to gather all the facts and report to him on whether the international laws of war were violated.”

“Not only is General Dostum alleged to have committed the original war crime; he is also reportedly responsible for serious tampering with evidence,” stated PHR Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin. “A Physicians for Human Rights forensic expert in 2008, working under the auspices of the UN, discovered that large pits have been dug in the area of Dasht-e-Leili where bodies are suspected to be buried. Analysis of satellite images performed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at PHR’s request, shows the apparent presence of heavy earth-moving equipment at the site in August 2006. McClatchy Newspapers reported on December 11, 2008 that according to witnesses, General Dostum and his commanders “have taken all the bones and thrown them into the river.” And, according to US Government documents that PHR uncovered in 2006, witnesses to this incident were “tortured, killed, or simply disappeared.”

“Afghanistan must work with the international community to ensure appropriate protection of the site and any remaining physical evidence, as well as the safety of any witnesses,” said Donaghue. “These would be necessary steps toward fulfilling President Obama’s mandate to collect all available information about the alleged war crimes and the reported cover-up.”

Editors, please note:
To access the online video by PHR (War Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration’s Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre) and to obtain high-resolution photos courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, please visit AfghanMassGrave.org.

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McGovern Asks Holbrooke to Protect Mass Grave Evidence and Ensure Investigation

Posted on Thursday, Aug 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm by Ben Greenberg

US Representative James McGovern (D-MA) has written to US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to urge him to take action

to ensure that there is a full investigation [of the Dasht-e-Leili massacre of 2001] and that a process of justice and accountability is established for the Afghan people.

McGovern is Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In his letter to Holbrooke, he wrote:

There are encouraging signs that the Obama Administration is prepared to move forward toward accountability for the massacre and its aftermath. President Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast July 13th that having now learned about the allegations he has instructed his national security team to gather all the facts about the case for his review. Collecting facts about this incident can only be done if the evidence, physical and testimonial, is not only identified, but also secured and protected.

For the full investigation the President has ordered to be successful it is imperative that immediate steps be taken to secure the gravesite and witnesses to the massacre. Past incidents demonstrate the need for gravesite and witness protection. A Physicians for Human Rights forensic expert in 2008 working under the auspices of the UN, discovered that large sections of earth have now been dug up and removed in the area where the remains were allegedly buried in Dasht-e-Leili. Analysis of satellite images performed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights shows the apparent presence of heavy earth moving equipment at the site in August 2006. Additionally, according to US Government documents that were uncovered by PHR’s FOIA request in 2006, witnesses to this incident were “tortured, killed, or simply disappeared.”

In face of this documented tampering with evidence, as well as the documented danger to witnesses to this event, I request that you work with the Karzai government to ensure appropriate protection of the site and any remaining physical evidence, as well as the safety of any witnesses. This would be a vital first step towards fulfilling President Obama’s mandate to collect all available information about the incident.

Download the full letter from Representative McGovern to Ambassador Holbrooke:

  Letter from US Representative James P. McGovern to US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, 7/16/09 (923.0 KB)

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What It’s Like to Discover a Mass Grave: Jennifer Leaning, MD

Posted on Friday, Jul 24, 2009 at 11:56 pm by Jonathan Hutson

 
icon for podpress  A Mass Grave In Afghanistan Raises Questions - Fresh Air (NPR): Play Now | Play in Popup | Download


NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross has broadcast an unsettling interview with three representatives of Physicians for Human Rights who describe in disturbing detail a seven-year investigation of a mass grave in the desert of Dasht-e-Leili, near Sheberghan, Afghanistan.

On July 11, The New York Times published a front-page piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen, who reported that Bush administration officials had repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the mass killing of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners by the forces of a US-backed warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, in November 2001. General Dostum, the Times revealed, was on the CIA payroll.

The Times article focused on new revelations that despite requests by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups for a formal investigation, Bush administration officials repeatedly impeded any inquiry because General Dostum worked closely with the CIA and US special forces.

On July 17, Gen. Dostum denounced the Times story — along with an August 2002 Newsweek cover story on the massacre. Nevertheless, Dostum admitted that the Taliban prisoners had surrendered jointly to US forces and to his own Northern Alliance forces.

“Dostum makes a significant admission by confirming in his statement that Taliban prisoners surrendered jointly to US forces and to US-allied Afghan forces in November 2001 outside Konduz, Afghanistan,” stated Nathaniel Raymond, Physicians for Human Rights’ lead investigator on the Dasht-e-Leili case.

“Furthermore,” said Raymond, “Dostum’s blanket denial should be seen in the context of clear indications of evidence-tampering at the Dasht-e-Leili site where bodies are suspected to be buried, and the fact that at least four witnesses in this case have been tortured, killed or disappeared.”

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Nathaniel Raymond, PHR's lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case, being interviewed for NPR's "Fresh Air" along with PHR Board Member Dr. Jennifer Leaning (Ben Greenberg/PHR)

Physicians for Human Rights discovered the alleged mass grave site at Dasht-e-Leili in January 2002. PHR has been investigating possible war crimes ever since, combing through documents received through the Freedom of Information Act, and pressing for a full, formal and transparent investigation.

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This 2002 photo by Physicians for Human Rights was published for the first time on the front page of The New York Times on July 11, 2009. That same day, President Obama ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre.

A former CIA case officer, Brian Glyn Williams, has summarized the events leading to and immediately following the November 2001 capture of the Taliban prisoners in his documentary film, Dostum: An Afghanistan Warlord’s War on Terror (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2004):

Dostum’s troops began to move to the east, towards the last Taliban hold-outs, the city of Konduz. There, Dostum’s forces eventually rounded up and surrounded and destroyed a major Taliban army, as well as its 055 Support Brigade.

In so doing, Dostum ended up capturing the largest single components of Arab al-Qaeda forces in the world, handing over hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda shock troops and terrorists to an American special forces team who accompanied him.

Most of these Arab terrorists were subsequently sent to Camp X-ray and Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most of them were average rank-and-file Taliban, as well as hundreds of Pakistani volunteer jihadis who had flowed over to Afghanistan in October and November of 2001 to kill the Americans.

They were rounded up by Dostum and shipped to the west, towards two fortresses that were going to be converted into prisons. One fortress was to the South, Dostum’s headquarters, the great castle of Qala-i-Jangi, Afghanistan’s largest castle, which surrounds an area the size of three football fields. There, several hundred hardened al-Qaeda prisoners were imprisoned in the depths of Dostum’s fortress, while other prisoners were sent to Dostum’s headquarters at Sheberghan.

In the process, Dostum began to celebrate his victory over the Taliban with his CIA and remaining A-Team, the Special Forces comrades-in-arms. A visibly exuberant Dostum for once allowed himself to wallow in the adulation of his people as they thronged to give him a hero’s welcome.

The New York Times editorial board has described the killing of the Taliban prisoners as a massacre:

According to survivors and witnesses, over a three-day period, fighters under the command of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum stuffed surrendering Taliban prisoners into metal shipping containers without food or water. Many suffocated. Guards shot others to death. The victims are believed to be buried in a grave in the desert of Dasht-i-Leili in northern Afghanistan.

Although the deaths were previously reported, The Times’s James Risen has now detailed repeated efforts by the Bush administration to discourage any investigation of the massacre — even after officials from the F.B.I. and the State Department, along with the Red Cross and human rights groups, tried to press the matter. Physicians for Human Rights, which discovered the mass grave in 2002, says the site has since been tampered with. Satellite photos seem to bear this out.

General Dostum, unfortunately, had far too many powerful friends looking out for him. He was on the C.I.A. payroll and his militia worked closely with United States Special Forces in the early days of the war.

Jennifer Leaning, MD, and former PHR staffer John Heffernan first reported the mass grave in January 2002. She’s a co-founding board member of PHR and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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PHR investigator Jennifer Leaning at Sheberghan Prison, January 2002 (John Heffernan/PHR)

What It’s Like to Discover a Mass Grave: Jennifer Leaning, MD

Dr. Leaning described to Terry Gross the scene in the desert near Sheberghan Prison.

GROSS: Dr. Leaning, you and one of your colleagues found the mass grave. How did you know when you found it?

Dr. LEANING: It was –- it was remarkable. I have seen old massacre sites. I have seen some mass graves that are smaller, but we were riding in an old Toyota Land Cruiser, heading southwest out of Sheberghan towards Maymana, and as you take a road out of Sheberghan to enter the Dasht-e- Leili Desert, as I say, within a matter of a few hundred yards, we suddenly saw this dry desert expanse, and it’s really desert. This is January. There wasn’t snow on the ground, but it was dry, cold, hard- packed desert. It was 40 degrees with the wind. And we saw fresh, moist sand and deep tracks of major vehicles, of what looked like bulldozers and also huge trucks — bulldozers meaning there were real treads on it. And there were these vast areas of disturbed sand and earth, moist and darker in the light compared to the hard, firm, undisturbed surface of the Dasht-e-Leili on both sides of this dirt road that we were on, and we got out.

And we were careful because we were within a line of sight of General Dostum’s military post up there, one of his headquarter posts, which is very near Sheberghan and the prison. And since everything is so flat, it was possible from the third floor of this outpost where he – where his troops were, at least, for him actually to see what we were doing – for his forces to see. And we had figured that out…

GROSS: Meaning you weren’t necessarily safe being there.

Dr. LEANING: No, and…

GROSS: Because he might have been behind the mass grave. That’s a possibility. His men might have been behind it, so…?

Dr. LEANING: Possible, yes, because he was…

GROSS: He might not have wanted you sniffing around there.

Dr. LEANING: No. He was in military control of this part of Mazar and the area going north and east, where Sheberghan was. He was in control of this whole area, and of the Sheberghan Prison. It was his people that were wardens in the prison.

And so we got out of the Land Rover, and we stayed on the road because of the Land Cruiser, because we were afraid that some parts of this might have been mined, which is often the case around mass graves. And yet, as we walked a little bit hesitantly into the disturbed earth, it became evident that, virtually as far as the eye could see on both sides of this road but particularly on the right-hand side as we were heading southeast out of Sheberghan, that there were black turbans tangled in the dirt, that there were prayer beads, isolated sandals and flip-flops, other little garments that I didn’t stoop down to investigate because some of them would have involved walking 20 yards into this disturbed area, and exposed human bones.

I mean, I’m a physician. There were pieces of rib cage. There were bones that looked as if they were parts of femurs.

And it appeared as if some of the surface of this grave had been already defaced by animals who had come to dig and then, smelling things, had explored deeper so that the – as I say, it was an area of disturbed earth with surface remnants of human remains and human clothing that extended on both sides for a very large area.

And we saw three or four military vehicles at Dostum’s outpost begin to fill with troops, with these men with uniform that we could see from a far distance, and begin to turn out of that compound and head down the road towards where we were. And so we quickly got back into our Land Cruiser, did a U-turn and went very fast. Before they got onto the road to the Dasht-e-Leili, we got back and went into Sheberghan town.

In response to The Times’s revelations about the Bush administration cover-up, President Obama has ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the killings of up to 2,000 Afghan prisoners of war suffocated in container trucks in 2001.

This response is a welcome turn-around from Bush-era policies that allowed war crimes to occur and be covered up. But as the initial fact-finding proceeds, President Obama will face enormous pressure—including from within his own administration—to “look forward” rather than allow a full, clear-eyed, and transparent investigation into what happened at the mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili.

Physicians for Human Rights is urging the Obama Administration to conduct the thorough investigation that is necessary to help Afghanistan return to the rule of law and restore America’s reputation as a world leader that respects the Geneva Conventions.

(Cross-posted on Daily Kos)

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Susannah Sirkin Discusses Afghan Mass Grave on PBS Worldfocus

Posted on Thursday, Jul 23, 2009 at 5:28 pm by Ben Greenberg

Obama pledges review of alleged mass grave in Afghanistan

Seven years ago, investigators for the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights discovered what appeared to be a mass grave in northern Afghanistan.

The bodies, they were told, were those of Taliban fighters who had been rounded up by Northern Alliance forces shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2001 and stuffed into metal shipping containers for transport to a nearby prison.

By the time they arrived, allegedly hundreds — perhaps thousands — were dead from suffocation, while others were shot by guards, and their bodies dumped in a field.

Susannah Sirkin, the deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, joins Martin Savidge to discuss the Obama administration’s position on the case and the current state of the grave site in Afghanistan.

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PHR Dasht-e-Leili Investigators on Fresh Air Today

Posted on Thursday, Jul 23, 2009 at 11:40 am by Ben Greenberg

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Nathaniel Raymond (L) has been leading the investigation into the alleged 2001 Dasht-e-Leili massacre in Afghanistan. Dr. Jennifer Leaning (R) discovered the mass grave of Taliban prisoners. Both work with the organization Physicians for Human Rights. (Photo: Ben Greenberg)

A Mass Grave In Afghanistan Raises Questions

Fresh Air from WHYY, July 23, 2009 · In 2001, shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan, hundreds or possibly thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners surrendered to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan warlord on the payroll of the C.I.A.

Over the course of three days, the captured prisoners were allegedly packed into shipping containers without food or water. Many suffocated, while others were reportedly shot by guards.

The mass grave has never been fully exhumed, and human rights groups allege that the Bush administration discouraged investigation of the matter, even after the urging of officials from the F.B.I., the State Department and the Red Cross.

Dr. Jennifer Leaning, Nathaniel Raymond and Dr. Nizam Peerwani of Physicians for Human Rights discuss their investigation of the alleged massacre and how the Obama administration is dealing with the issue.

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Afghan Mass Grave and Cover-Up Media Round-Up

Posted on Tuesday, Jul 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm by Jonathan Hutson

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In April 2002, Physicians for Human Rights forensic experts dug a test trench as part of a preliminary investigation for the UN at the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave site near Sheberghan, Afghanistan, and exposed 15 bodies. (Physicians for Human Rights)

The Dasht-e-Leili mass grave case is garnering increased media attention, after more than seven years of investigation and advocacy by Physicians for Human Rights. A large part of the credit for the media coverage goes to early and significant coverage and analysis by blogs, many of whom are named below as part of this media round-up.

The significant new information in the case is that, according to The New York Times, the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal probes into alleged war crimes and that recent analysis of satellite images by the American Association for the Advancement of Science indicates evidence-tampering at the site where bodies are suspected to be buried in a mass grave.

In response—and on the same weekend that The New York Times revealed what its reporter James Risen has since characterized on “Democracy Now!” as the Bush Administration’s cover-up—President Obama has ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the Dasht-e-Leili case and report back to him.

Read the rest of this entry »

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Physicians for Human Rights Says His Denial Flies in the Face of Documentation

Media Contact: 
Jonathan Hutson
jhutson [at] phrusa [dot] com
Cell: +1-857-919-5130

Cambridge, MA – “The facts gathered in the Dasht-e-Leili mass grave case contradict General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s statement of July 17,” stated Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin. “He denies that the alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban prisoners ever occurred. By claiming that the allegations are politically motivated, Dostum is clearly trying to distract focus from the substantial documentation collected over seven years of investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, the UN, and award-winning investigative journalists.”

“Dostum makes a significant admission by confirming in his statement that Taliban prisoners surrendered jointly to US forces and to US-allied Afghan forces in November 2001 outside Konduz, Afghanistan,” stated Nathaniel Raymond, Physicians for Human Rights’ lead researcher on the Dasht-e-Leili case.

“Furthermore,” said Raymond, “Dostum’s blanket denial should be seen in the context of clear indications of evidence-tampering at the Dasht-e-Leili site where bodies are suspected to be buried, and the fact that at least four witnesses in this case have been tortured, killed or disappeared.”

“Physicians for Human Rights applauds the US State Department’s reported efforts to ensure that Dostum not return from exile in Turkey to assume a position of power in Afghanistan,” stated Sirkin. “However, a full, formal and transparent investigation into the allegations against Dostum and the evidence that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal probes into the case must be launched by the US and Afghanistan. Witnesses must be protected and the Dasht-e-Leili site must be secured.”


Editors, please note: To access and use a new, online video by PHR (War Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration’s Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre), and to obtain high-resolution photos courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, please visit http://afghanmassgrave.org

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SlashdotSlashdot It!

24oct2007wide-annotated-web500pxIn 2002, PHR investigators first confirmed the presence of human remains in a mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili, outside of the city of Sheberghan in Jowzjan Province, northern Afghanistan. Six and a half years later, in 2008, Stefan Schmitt, Director of PHR’s International Forensic Program, was in Afghanistan under contract with United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to conduct forensic assessments on several different grave sites in the country. In an effort to re-visit sites which had been originally documented in 2002, Schmitt visited Dasht-e-Leili. In contrast to 2002, Schmitt, came upon two sizeable pits which had disturbed the area originally documented in 2002—indicative of apparent evidence tampering. Schmitt raised concerns about the state of the alleged massacre site in meetings with UN and Afghan officials in Kabul.

McClatchy Newspapers subsequently reported that the UN team

first spotted two large excavations on a visit in June, one of them about 100 feet long and more than 9 feet deep in places. A McClatchy reporter visited the site last month [November 2008] and found three additional smaller pits, which apparently had been dug since June.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recounts (PDF) that

In May 2009 PHR requested that the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) research and acquire available satellite imagery of the area to determine when two the sizeable pits possibly comprising the graves might have first appeared.  Working with PHR’s International Forensic Program, the AAAS located and analyzed multiple images of the site acquired by the QuickBird, Ikonos, TopSat, and SPOT-5 satellites.

Satellite imagery analysis provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) revealed that apparent earth-moving equipment was present at the site on August 5, 2006. The image shows the presence of one large pit and apparent earth-moving equipment in a second area. A subsequent satellite image from October 24, 2007 reveals a second pit where the apparent earth-moving equipment had been.

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On June 21, 2006, PHR made an extensive Freedom of Information Act request for all information relating to occurrences on and around November 2001 in the region of Dasht-e-Leili. PHR submitted the FOIA request simultaneously with the Department of Defense (including the Department of the Air Force, the Department of the Navy, and US Central Command), the Department of State (including the War Crimes Office) and the Central Intelligence Agency.

It appears that within just a little over a month of PHR’s Freedom of Information Act request, two large pits were excavated in the general area where human remains are suspected to be buried. The contents (fill) of these pits was taken away to an unknown location, and considering the size of the pits, this must have taken many truck loads.

The AAAS report (PDF) is now publicly available. Images from the report are available on AfghanMassGrave.org, on PHR’s Flickr account and as a .kml file, which can be viewed in Google Earth. AAAS has also issued a statement regarding its report.

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Today, following President Obama’s welcome decision to ask the National Security Council “to collect the facts … that are known” about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and subsequent cover-up, three major newspapers—The New York Times, The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle—have joined Physicians for Human Rights in our call for a full federal investigation.

As the San Francisco Chronicle said:

Those alleged atrocities are an American concern.

The New York Times, which broke the story by James Risen that has catapulted the almost forgotten massacre of as many as 2000 men back into public consciousness, reflected:

There can be no justification for the horrors or for the willingness of the United States and Afghanistan to look the other way.

President Obama has told aides to study the matter, and the administration is pressing Mr. Karzai not to return General Dostum to power. Mr. Obama needs to order a full investigation into the massacre. The site must be guarded and witnesses protected….

There is more at stake than just the history books. Out of desperation or fear, many Afghans have again thrown their lot in with the Taliban. There is no chance of getting them to switch sides if they fear being massacred. If there is any hope of salvaging the war, American forces must persuade all Afghans that they and the Afghan government are truly committed to justice.

The Boston Globe elaborates:

It would be understandable if Obama were reluctant to become entangled in the sins and secrets of the Bush administration. But the decision of the CIA-funded warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum to have hundreds of enemy fighters suffocated in container trucks does lasting harm to the Karzai government, which lists him as military chief of staff, and to America’s reputation as a nation that respects the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law.

Obama says his national security team will be gathering facts on Dostum’s war crime and the Bush administration’s cover-up. The next step ought to be the sort of full-bore FBI investigation that some agents of the bureau originally wanted. Earlier refusals to investigate and punish war crimes in Afghanistan opened the way to a warlord-riddled Afghan government that is scorned and mistrusted by much of the population. Those refusals also set America on a path that led to the disasters of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the government-approved torturing of prisoners of war. Truth is the best antidote to the disfiguring disease of secrecy.

Rising to this responsibility means not just committing to an investigation but, as The Times has emphasized, committing right now to guarding the evidence at the Dasht-e-Leili site and to protecting any known witnesses.

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In the wake of a major New York Times story revealing new evidence that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan in 2002, PHR has written a letter to President Obama calling for a criminal probe. The letter urges the President to make the investigation of these alleged crimes and their apparent cover-up a top Administration priority. The long-term US goal of creating security for the Afghan people cannot be achieved without justice and an end to the culture of impunity for war crimes.

  Letter from PHR to President Barack Obama, 7/13/09 (93.3 KB)

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