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

In Afghanistan, where over 100 mass grave sites allegedly contain many of Afghanistan’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 crimes.

Among the many reported massacres that have taken place in the course of brutal conflict in Afghanistan, one incident in particular has drawn PHR’s attention for more than a decade due to potential U.S. and Afghan involvement and the scale of its apparent death toll during transport of people in custody. In November 2001, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters and others were believed to have been suffocated to death or shot in container trucks by U.S.-allied Afghan troops of the “Northern Alliance”, 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 fifteen remains and conducted autopsies on three individual remains and confirmed deaths consistent with suffocation. Later, PHR and satellite images documented earth-moving equipment and large craters at the site. The New York Times also reported how three federal U.S. agencies were prevented from delving into the incident. PHR has consistently called, without success, for a full independent investigation into this apparent serious war crime.

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.

Read more for almost a decade of 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, PHR partnered with Afghan civil society organizations, producing in 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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