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PHR Files Suit Against Defense Department in FOIA Dispute Over Documents Concerning Dasht-e-Leili Mass Grave in Afghanistan

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights filed suit today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Department of Defense claiming improper withholding of public records under the Freedom of Information Act. PHR seeks documents from the DOD relating to the department's investigations of possible human rights violations and mass death of hundreds of captured Taliban fighters in Afghanistan by soldiers of the Northern Alliance in November of 2001.

Ropes & Gray partner Thomas Susman, an attorney for PHR, says the information sought by the Cambridge-based non-profit group is essential to completing the group's own investigation into the matter, which has been ongoing for over six years. "The mission of the group is to promote health by protecting human rights, and it uses scientific methods, especially its forensic expertise, to investigate allegations of human rights violations," Susman said. "Without the freedom to access public records, the group won't be able to fully complete its work in this case."

PHR President Leonard S. Rubenstein called the FOIA request a necessary step towards answering the many questions still surrounding the mass grave sites. "It has been over half a decade since PHR's staff first began its investigation of the Dasht-e-Leili site and the events surrounding the deaths of those buried there. There has still been no official, public accounting from the Afghan Government, the US Department of Defense, and other US agencies about how and why these prisoners died," Rubenstein added. "These records are crucial to help determine what the facts are in the case and who, if anybody, should be held accountable for the death of these prisoners, who were protected by the Geneva Conventions."

The investigations followed media accounts of suspected mass grave sites allegedly containing more than 2,000 Taliban fighters at Dasht-e-Leili, Afghanistan. According to news reports, hundreds of Taliban fighters died of asphyxiation at the end of November 2001 while being transported to Sheberghan prison in shipping containers following their surrender at Konduz. Their bodies were allegedly buried sometime soon after, approximately 78 miles west of Mazar-I-Sharif in the vicinity of Sheberghan.

After PHR's personnel visited the gravesite in 2002 and found recently buried skeletal remains in the graves, the New York Times and Newsweek published accounts of the deaths and the gravesite. In these articles, officials from the State Department and the U.S. Army stated they were conducting an investigation of the gravesite.

In June 2006, PHR requested all records relating to any investigation of the matter. When the DOD did not release any relevant documents, PHR filed administrative appeals. According to the complaint, however, the DOD and its component agencies failed to respond in a timely manner to the FOIA request. "PHR has exhausted all the applicable administrative remedies with respect to its FOIA request, and we had no choice but to bring this action," Susman said.

The group is asking the court to order the federal agencies concerned to disclose the requested records in their entireties.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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