ResourcesPress Release

President Obama Orders National Security Team To Investigate Dasht-e-Leili Massacre and Alleged Cover-Up

Physicians for Human Rights Hails the President's Commitment after Pressing for Accountability for Seven Years

For Immediate Release

Cambridge, MA – President Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners who allegedly were massacred by US-backed forces in Afghanistan. The President stated that the government needs to find out whether actions by the US contributed to possible war crimes.

The comments to Anderson Cooper were aired on CNN on Sunday as it promoted excerpts from Cooper's exclusive interview with the President in Ghana that will air in full at 10 PM Eastern on Monday, July 13. Cooper raised new evidence from a New York Times report by James Risen that the Bush Administration impeded at least three federal investigations into an alleged massacre of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Afghanistan. The excerpts from the interview as transcribed by Physicians for Human Rights follow at the end of this press release.

"Physicians for Human Rights praises President Obama for ordering his national security team to collect all the facts in the Dasht-e-Leili massacre and apparent US cover-up," said Physicians for Human Rights Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin.

President Obama's comments differ from statements made by Obama Administration officials on Friday, as reported by Lara Jakes of the Associated Press, that they had no grounds to investigate. In their statement, these officials claim that they lack legal grounds to probe these alleged war crimes because "only foreigners were involved and the alleged killings occurred in a foreign country." Physicians for Human Rights on Friday called these claims "absurd" and said the US "has a legal obligation to find out what US officials knew, where US personnel were, what involvement they had, and the actions of US allies during and after the massacre."

"Since Physicians for Human Rights discovered the mass grave in January 2002, we have been gathering the facts on the initial incident and the alleged cover-up of it through forensic investigation, legal action against the Bush Administration, and documentation of the chain of command," said Nathaniel Raymond, PHR's lead researcher in the case. "We stand ready to provide these facts to the president's national security team and to Congress. President Obama is right to say that US and Afghan violations of the laws of war must be investigated. If the Obama Administration finds that criminal wrongdoing occurred in this case, those responsible – whether American or Afghan officials – must be prosecuted. Additionally, reports that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering appointing a prosecutor to pursue violations related to detainee abuse is a welcome and long-awaited first step to restoring our nation's commitment to the rule of law," said Raymond, who also directs PHR's Campaign Against Torture.

"The White House should support the appointment of a criminal prosecutor to investigate the US use of torture as well as the creation of a commission of inquiry to gather all the facts of this dark chapter," concluded Raymond.

According to US government documents obtained by PHR, as many as 2,000 surrendered Taliban fighters were reportedly suffocated in container trucks by Afghan forces operating jointly with the US in November 2001. The bodies were reportedly buried in mass graves in the Dasht-e-Leili desert near Sheberghan, Afghanistan. Notorious Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was reportedly on the CIA payroll, is allegedly responsible for the massacre.


Excerpt from CNN interview:

ANDERSON COOPER: And now it seems clear that the Bush Administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It's now come out, there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed…


ANDERSON COOPER: …some were suffocated in a steel container, others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support – would you call for – an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention. So what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known. And we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.

ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn't resist categorically an investigation?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that.

PHR's International Forensic Program (IFP) has conducted forensic assessments and investigations of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide in many countries. IFP is dedicated to providing independent forensic expertise to document and collect evidence of human rights violations and of violations of international humanitarian law. Since the 1980s, PHR has mobilized forensic scientists and other experts worldwide to respond to inquiries by governments, organizations, families and individuals.

On the Web:

Editors, please note:
To access and use a new, online video by PHR (War Crimes and the White House: The Bush Administration's Cover-Up of the Dasht-e-Leili Massacre), and to obtain high-resolution photos courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights, please visit

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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