Assessments and Documentation of Mass Crimes | Assessments and Documentation in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where over 100 mass grave sites are believed to contain the bodies of many of the country’s estimated 1.5 million war dead, forensic science can help identify victims’ remains and determine how they died.

PHR has been documenting human rights abuses in Afghanistan since 1997 and our assessments in Afghanistan have served a dual purpose: discovering the truth behind mass crimes and building local capacity to use forensics for documentation of these crimes.

Among the many reported massacres that have taken place in the course of brutal conflict in Afghanistan, one incident has drawn PHR’s particular attention. In November 2001, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters and others are believed to have been suffocated to death or shot in container trucks as they were being transported to prison by U.S.-allied Afghan troops, and buried in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili, near the town of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. PHR forensic investigators discovered a mass grave at that location in 2002, conducting an initial examination of part of the site under the auspices of the United Nations. PHR exhumed 15 remains and conducted autopsies on three individual remains, and confirmed that the deaths were consistent with suffocation. Later, PHR and satellite images documented apparent attempts to hide the mass graves.The New York Times also reported how three federal U.S. agencies were prevented from delving into the incident. 

In response to these revelations, President Barack Obama ordered his national security team to collect all the facts about the Dasht-e-Leili case and report back to him. This never happened. PHR continues to call, without success, for a full, independent investigation into what may have been a serious war crime committed at Dasht-e-Leili.

Read more about investigation and advocacy by PHR, the UN, and investigative journalists and here for photographic evidence collected during the preliminary exhumation.

As part of the grassroots push for transitional justice in Afghanistan, PHR partnered with Afghan civil society organizations to produce the 2010 “Truth Seeking and Forensic Science” conference featuring local voices. In 2011, PHR helped form the Afghanistan Forensic Science Organization (AFSO), a group of forensic investigators who are working to strengthen their country’s justice system by mapping and registering mass grave sites throughout the country, and training representatives of the government and NGOs in crime scene documentation.

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