UN to Assist in Preserving Mass Graves in Afghanistan

The UN pledged today to preserve Dasht-e-Leili, a mass grave site in northern Afghanistan, which was recently excavated and emptied of bodies, allegedly by Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum is believed to have removed the corpses out of fear that shifts in Afghan leadership might open him to charges of war crimes. The story was first reported by McClatchy.

Norah Niland, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters that the UN “remains ready to assist all Afghan stakeholders, including victim groups, to take immediate and concerted action to preserve grave sites.”

The move comes a little late, as the remains have already been excavated. The site was thought to contain the bodies of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners captured by the Northern Alliance after the siege of Kunduz in late 2001. News reports at the time indicated that a small number of prisoners had suffocated by accident after being left in shipping containers. The truth, based on recent FOIA release from the US government, indicates that the deaths were not accidental and were far more numerous than previously thought.

From Physicians for Human Rights, a Washington-based NGO that initially investigated the deaths in 2002 and subsequently filed the FOIA request with the Defense Department, the State Department, and the CIA:

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.

According PHR chief Frank Donaghue, “removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated.” What about concealing knowledge that a war crime has taken place?