US-AFGHANISTAN: Group Seeks Probe of Mass Graves

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William Fisher

2009-07-22T115607Z_01_SZH08_RTRMDNP_3_AFGHANISTAN

A U.S. soldier secures the area around a school, which will host a local election committee on the upcoming presidential election, in the village of Dadu-Khel in Logar Province in Afghanistan 7/22/09.  

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

NEW YORK, Jul 17 (IPS) – A prominent human rights group is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate why the administration of former President George W. Bush blocked three different probes into war crimes in Afghanistan where as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were reportedly suffocated in container trucks and then buried in a mass grave by Afghan forces operating jointly with U.S. forces.

The Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which discovered the mass gravesite in 2002, has issued the call for the criminal probe. The organisation says U.S. government documents it has obtained show that the bodies were reportedly buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert near Sheberghan, Afghanistan.

It charges that Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who it says was on the payroll of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was responsible for the 2001 massacre at a prison run by the general’s forces near the town of Shibarghan.

“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’s 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,” she said.

PHR says senior Bush administration officials impeded investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the State and Defence departments, and apparently never conducted a full inquiry. The New York Times made the disclosure earlier this month in a story by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen.

Subsequently, President Barack Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the alleged massacre. Obama said the government needs to find out whether actions by the U.S. contributed to possible war crimes.

“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 U.S. officials found to have broken the law,” he said.

“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 U.S. government in investigating this massacre. It is time for the cover-up to end.”

PHR reiterated its call to 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,” PHR said. “The Dasht-e-Leili mass gravesite must finally be secured, all surviving witnesses must be protected, and the government of Afghanistan, in coordination with the U.N. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), must at last allow a full investigation to go forward.”

PHR charged that U.S. officials have been reluctant to pursue an investigation – sought by officials from the FBI, the State Department, the Red Cross and human rights groups – because the warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the payroll of the CIA and his militia worked closely with U.S. Special Forces in 2001.

The group said the United States also worried about undermining the U.S.-supported government of President Hamid Karzai, in which General Dostum had served as a defence official.

“At the White House, nobody said no to an investigation, but nobody ever said yes, either,” said Pierre Prosper, the former U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues. “The first reaction of everybody there was, ‘Oh, this is a sensitive issue; this is a touchy issue politically’.”

PHR’s Raymond, who is head of the organisation’s Campaign Against Torture, told IPS that President Obama’s statement was welcome.

But, he added, “The president’s rhetoric must be matched by urgent action. He needs to pressure President Karzai to secure the mass graves site, protect witnesses and make sure that U.S.-led military forces and the United Nations in Afghanistan protect all evidence of the crimes.”

The New York Times reported that the U.S. has put pressure on Afghan officials not to reappoint General Dostum reappointment as military chief of staff to the Afghan president.

General Dostum has previously claimed that any deaths of the Taliban prisoners were unintentional. He has said that only 200 prisoners died and blamed combat wounds and disease for most of the fatalities.

The first calls for an investigation came from PHR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. A military commander in the United States-led coalition rejected a request by a Red Cross official for an inquiry in late 2001, according to the official, who, in keeping with his organisation’s policy, would speak only on condition of anonymity and declined to identify the commander.

Subsequently, PHR asked the Defence Department to investigate the alleged massacre, but no action was taken. PHR says the prisoner deaths came up in a conversation with Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence at the time, in early 2003.

“Somebody mentioned Dostum and the story about the containers and the possibility that this was a war crime. And Wolfowitz said we are not going to be going after him for that,” according to the group.

11-31

Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William O. Beeman, New America Media

2009-05-12T113428Z_01_TEH102_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-USA-JOURNALIST Roxana Saberi, the 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Iran has been released to her family, and will soon return to the United States.

While her international community of family, colleagues and friends can rejoice in her release, it was predictable from the moment of her arrest, based on the history of such events in Iran in the past.

Although no one will know for sure exactly how events proceeded against her, it is possible to speculate how Saberi’s arraignment and trial developed.

The espionage charges against Saberi were utterly unfounded. They were likely the result of an escalation within the Iranian judicial system as official after official tried to cover their tracks for a series of abortive attempts to charge her with a crime.

She was first detained for the relatively minor offense of having purchased a bottle of wine. Since religious minorities in Iran are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcohol, the country is awash in liquor. It is easily obtainable by everyone—even government officials. Most likely the arresting official did not know that Saberi was an American passport holder born in the United States, and was probably chagrined to discover that this case was likely to create international brouhaha.

A more serious charge was then sought to justify the first arrest. The discovery that her press credentials had expired some months earlier provided that opportunity. Saberi had continued to file stories for a number of American news outlets, reportedly because officials assured her that the expiration of her press pass was inconsequential. Since she could demonstrate that Iranian officials had allowed her to continue writing, this charge would also not hold water.

Finally, the serious charge of espionage was lodged. As foolish and unsubstantiated as this charge was, it was plausible in Iran. Rumors that American CIA operatives were active in Iran were widely promulgated in Iran. These suspicions were reinforced through extensive documentation found in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.” Additionally, on April 4, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz confirmed an earlier rumor that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, inside Iran.

Iran experienced one horrendous situation involving a foreigner arrested for spying in Iran in 2003. Canadian-Iranian Zahra Kazemi was raped, beaten and tortured to death (although Iranian authorities claimed she died of a stroke) for allegedly having photographed prohibited parts of Evin Prison, where she was later incarcerated. Her death caused an international uproar. The Iranian government, clearly badly burned by the Kazemi case has since been careful to make sure that her situation is not repeated.

Foreigners — dual nationals — accused of espionage have been held for a time, usually in conspicuously humane circumstances, while the government wrings as much publicity out of the event as possible for a domestic and regional audience. The accused prisoners are then released in a show of clemency.

This was the case with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Ms. Efandiari was visiting her 90-year-old mother in 2006 when she was arrested. It is likely that her connection to Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, made her an object of suspicion. Hamilton had long connections to the CIA and to groups promoting democratic revolutions in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested at about the same time on the same charges. Tajbakhsh worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Soros had also been active in the same “revolutions” in the region.

Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were held under relatively humane circumstances and released some months later.

The Iranian presidential election next month was also a likely reason for a quick dispensation of Saberi’s case. Iran would like the world to focus on the election, and not on an ongoing saga of an international journalist in their prison system.

In the Saberi case, Iran actually did itself some good. It showed that it had a functioning judicial system—however imperfect—with an appeals process that eventually yielded the correct result.

The Obama administration, by engaging in diplomacy and sober statements of concern regarding Saberi, not only aided the process of her release, but likely set the stage for further improved relations between the United States and Iran. We now have a situation where Iran undertook an action of which the United States disapproved. The United States expressed itself in a non-hostile manner, and the Iranian government responded with a positive redress of that action. This bodes well for future U.S.-Iranian relations. It is only regrettable that this had to come at the price of Saberi’s unjust incarceration.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is past president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “’Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).