Afghan war crimes a low priority

Despite a UN visit last week, a full investigation of the mass grave in Dasht-e Leili has yet to begin.

Commander Taher Charkhi, who helped bury scores of bodies here in a mass grave, is clearly pleased when he says that Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners "suffocated in the containers" last November.

The burly commander adds that he is surprised that anyone cares what happened to these fighters, who backed the plotters of the attacks on the World Trade Center. "Thousands should have died, not hundreds," he says, strolling over the wind-swept graves littered with bloody clothes and jawbones.

Western human rights groups have detailed eyewitness reports that, in November, Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners, packed by the hundreds in single metal shipping containers, suffocated as they were being transported to a nearby prison. Earlier this year, the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights came and excavated 15 of the dead here in the vast desert on the edge of this city.

But whether the deaths will be prosecuted as war crimes is unclear.

Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, says that, while European officials and media have compared the crimes to the mass executions in Bosnia, "the people who are not seeing the connection between this and other war crimes of our time are the people in this [US] administration." Mr. Rubenstein notes that, although the US initially called for the Afghan government to investigate the incident, "clearly they're in no position to do that. Since then, there's just been silence."

The blasé attitude of some officials is reflected in the words of a Western diplomat in Kabul, whose country has supported war-crimes prosecutions in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He asks: "Is it really a great surprise to anyone that there were war crimes committed in Afghanistan? Is this really something we should be focused on?"

There has been only limited enthusiasm for investigating this mass grave from the one body – the United Nations – which has helped create legal systems to oversee war-crimes investigations in the past. Despite a UN visit to the headquarters of Gen. Rashid Dostum's headquarters last week, a full investigation of the grave has not yet begun. Dostum led the attacks on Konduz, which led to the capture of the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners who eventually died and were buried at Dasht-e Leili.

Any inquiry to determine how many prisoners were buried and how they perished poses major hurdles in Afghanistan, a fledgling nation lacking even the rudiments of a legal system.

Few in the country's new government interpret what took place here as a "war crime." Still, some are now accusing Gen. Dostum and a top lieutenant, Commander Kamal, of stupidity in the accidental deaths of the prisoners.

Yet Kabul's central government, which would likely have to help prosecute the crimes, appears convinced that Commander Kamal, who ordered the prisoners packed like sardines and then failed to relieve their suffering, is a mere victim of his own ignorance. "He is a stupid man," says Hilal Uddin, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister. "These containers are for carrying goods, not for carrying human beings. But still he should have been smart enough to shoot holes in the containers so these prisoners could breathe."

The prisoners buried here were first captured some 200 miles east at Kunduz, a pocket of Taliban and Al Qaeda resistance. Some of those who surrendered were taken to Qala Jangi prison in Mazar-e Sharif, where a later uprising, put down by Dostum with the help of US bombers, resulted in the death of one CIA agent and the capture American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Other prisoners captured at Kunduz were dispatched to a prison in Shibergan, about four hours west by car, and it was POWs from this group who landed in the grave at Dasht-e Leili.

Many of the prisoners buried at Dasht-e-Leili had already been interrogated by the same US Special Forces who handled Lindh, say Afghan officials.

Mr. Uddin and his colleagues in the new Afghan government are in no hurry to consider a prosecution against Commander Kamal, much less his superior, Dostum. "When Kamal reached Shibergan and discovered that hundreds of his prisoners had died, he was afraid and just buried them on the spot," he says. "He was particularly afraid of what Gen. Dostum would say when he found out.

"But, in my view, Kamal did not want to kill these people," he adds. "He was using these containers because he was worried about security and a break-out."

Investigators with Physicians for Human Rights estimate that between 200 and 300 bodies are now buried in Dasht-e-Leili. A proper accounting of the dead would start with prisoner records that can only be obtained from Dostum and his allies, possibly the US Special Forces, said a Western official in Kabul. In any case, cooperation in the investigation is unlikely to come from Dostum's lieutenants in nearby Shibergan. Mohammed Qul, a deputy security chief for Dostum, says that the spate of accusations against his fellow Uzbeks is just "another indication to me that Al Qaeda is planting propaganda to destabilize the entire country. No one seems to remember that during the prison fighting, some 200 of our men and several of our leading commanders were killed by Al Qaeda."

Mr. Qul charged that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had massacred dozens of civilians, including small children, in the weeks prior to their own deaths by suffocation. "The reason for the harsh treatment of the prisoners had to do with the real danger of revolt that they posed," he says. "No one is responsible for this because it is an accident."

The Physicians for Human Rights is calling for a full scientific investigation of the site. In the meanwhile, the group wants 24-hour security for the site, which is currently unmonitored and in territory controlled by Dostum. "It's just not appropriate to leave the site in control of someone who may be implicated," Rubenstein says.

Dasht-e Leili had been used earlier as a mass grave. In 1997, fighters for Dostum dug up a mass grave here to discredit a rival warlord, who Dostum claimed had killed prisoners by the same suffocating container deaths alleged to have occurred in November.

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