Mass graves still unguarded as U.S., U.N., Afghans duck task

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2008 

The apartment building in Ankara, Turkey, where Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is currently living.

TOM LASSETER / MCT

ANKARA, Turkey — A week after the revelation that remains had been bulldozed from a mass grave site that held up to 2,000 bodies in Afghanistan, the location remains unprotected, the United Nations hasn't released its own investigation and the warlord who's accused of the exhumation is comfortably lodged just down the street from a Starbucks in Turkey's capital.

None of the key players in Afghanistan — the U.S. military, NATO, the United Nations or the Afghan government — has taken responsibility for safeguarding the site at Dasht-e Leili in northern Afghanistan. Each says that someone else should take the first step.

The U.S. military says it has no mandate to guard the graves and is waiting for a request by the Afghan government. That government, headed by President Hamid Karzai, has remained silent, possibly out of fear of riling Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the U.S.-backed warlord whose men are accused of killing their prisoners seven years ago and of destroying evidence of the crime this year. Many in Afghanistan see Dostum as a key figure in maintaining stability in the north, a relatively calm part of a nation that's beset by insurgency.

To be sure, the victims who were buried in the graves elicit little sympathy in most quarters. They were suspected Taliban and al Qaida fighters who'd surrendered after U.S. and Afghan resistance troops overthrew the Taliban regime after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

But Afghanistan's paralysis in the face of an acknowledged wartime atrocity, and now the destruction of evidence of possible war crimes — both of which would violate international law — casts a harsh light on the state of accountability and governance in the country seven years after the U.S.-led invasion.

"The fact that this happened is very much linked to the lack of rule of law in Afghanistan," said Sari Kouvo, a consultant with the International Center for Transitional Justice, which helps countries address past mass atrocities, and a former human-rights and rule of law adviser to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan. "These things could not happen if persons like Dostum . . . could expect that there would be consequences."

The U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights hasn't yet released what it knows about the graves. In fact, the U.N.'s information is already out of date, for a McClatchy reporter who visited the scene in November found that more pits had been excavated since U.N.-sponsored inspectors were at the site this summer.

McClatchy reported Dec. 11 that there now are three smaller pits in addition to the two large holes found by Physicians for Human Rights, which the U.N. contracted to investigate the site. Physicians for Human Rights called last week for investigations in the United States and Afghanistan and this week urged the U.S. commander of American and NATO-led forces to ensure the protection of the area immediately.

None of which has happened.

The State Department estimated that the graves contained the bodies of as many as 2,000 prisoners, who died in late 2001 while they were being trucked to prison in cramped shipping containers or allegedly at the hands of Dostum's militia.

CIA and U.S. special forces operatives were advising Dostum during the invasion of Afghanistan, but the U.S. Defense Department has denied that any Americans were present when the prisoners died. The U.S. government hasn't released proof that it investigated the crime, however, and now the American military seems to be uncertain about its role.

On Tuesday, the spokesman for the commander of U.S. and NATO-led troops in the country said that the problem was for the Afghan government to solve.

"This is really a matter for the government of Afghanistan, and protection of the site is not within the . . . mandate" of NATO or U.S. forces, Col. Greg Julian said in an e-mail exchange. He added: "This is more of a police action than military security mission."

On Wednesday, however, Julian, the spokesman for Army Gen. David McKiernan, said in another e-mail that "It's not out of (the) question that if the Afghan government would ask for support that something could be arranged. If we receive a request from PHR, we would assess it and forward it to (the Afghan government) for their consideration."

When he was asked whether that signaled a shift in policy, he responded, "No, I'm just saying that it hasn't been asked yet, and if the forces are available and the request is reasonable that it might be possible, because there is nothing prohibiting that type of support, to my knowledge."

The spokesman for Karzai didn't respond to a request for comment. There's no sign that Karzai's government has asked for help protecting the site.

The spokesman for the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said that the Physicians for Human Rights report about the site that was submitted last week would have to be vetted and discussed internally before its release. For the Dasht-e Leili grave site that's already been compromised, Colville said, there's no rush to make the report public because there's no urgency, "in the sense of you've got to stop something from happening."

Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman in Kabul, emphasized that "as you know, the United Nations does not have the jurisdiction or the mandate" to secure the site.

The U.N. was in a position to know about the grave tampering before Physicians for Human Rights made its June-July visit to Afghanistan, when two pits were observed at Dasht-e Leili.

The U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, visited Dasht-e Leili in May and saw the two pits there, though it isn't clear whether he fully understood their significance, according to Farid Mutaqi, a senior investigator with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the main Afghan human rights organization. Alston declined to clarify the matter.

"I think it's best if I leave the follow-up to you on Dasht-e Leili since I can't really add anything specific to the controversy that you are now following," Alston said in an e-mail.

Earlier this year, Dostum was put under house arrest after he and his men were said to have dragged a rival leader out of his home, beaten him and his family and then held the man hostage. At the time, Dostum was stripped of his mostly honorary title of chief of staff to the commander in chief, and threatened with prosecution. The title reportedly was reinstated later.

Dostum met with Karzai in late November, and flew to Turkey soon afterward.

"One of the big criticisms of President Karzai is that he's always making compromises with people like General Dostum," said Rahimullah Rameh, the head of the transitional justice program at the Kabul office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

"What the Afghan people really want is to ensure justice and the sovereignty of the law, and ending the culture of immunity . . . the government has acted very weakly, or not at all, in this regard," Rameh said.

Dostum now is living in an apartment building in a posh Ankara neighborhood, with a black BMW and Mercedes parked in the garage.

A McClatchy reporter visited the building several times, leaving business cards and two letters with the Turkish security officers stationed outside.

One member of the security detail told McClatchy that "the general says he does not want to meet with the press, that he does not want to discuss this issue," but that he'd convey the interview request.

A local newspaper had reported that Dostum was in Turkey after brokering an asylum deal with Afghan officials, a report that he later denied. An aide for Afghan Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said he'd looked into whether the government was pursuing asylum for Dostum but had found no evidence of it.

Burak Ozugergin, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, told McClatchy that Dostum "came here out of his own volition and he can leave when he wants."

"There is no conviction against him, nor does he seem to be exiled by the Afghan government," Ozugergin said. "He is free to come, free to go."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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