Accessibility links

Afghanistan: Documentary Stirs Controversy Over Mistreatment, Executions Of Afghan Prisoners

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Left-wing European deputies last week arranged for the screening of a new documentary by a British filmmaker that appears to support allegations that hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda combatants detained during the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan might have been tortured and summarily executed. The video documentary, based on accounts of alleged eyewitnesses, was shown last week at the Reichstag, the Berlin-based German parliament, at the initiative of the Party of Democratic Socialism. Members of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left organized a similar screening the next day at the Strasbourg-based European Parliament. The film, which has not yet been broadcast publicly, is likely to reignite controversy about the behavior of the United States' Afghan allies during the last days of the Taliban regime. But, even more important, it raises new questions about whether U.S. troops witnessed the executions and failed to stop them.

Prague, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German and European lawmakers last week were the first to screen a 20-minute outtake of "Massacre in Mazar," a documentary shot recently in northern Afghanistan by British independent producer and filmmaker Jamie Doran.

Doran, a long-time documentary filmmaker with the BBC, said he interviewed witnesses in the area of Mazar-i-Sharif, the stronghold of ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who claim extrajudicial executions of prisoners were carried out after the fall of the northern city of Kunduz to the Northern Alliance.

The Taliban's last stronghold in Afghanistan's north, Kunduz, fell last November after several days of siege and negotiations. An estimated 8,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters surrendered to Dostum's forces. But only a fraction of them are believed to have reached the Qala-i-Jhangi fortress prison west of Mazar-i-Sharif, or the Shebergan prison in Jowzjan Province. An estimated 2,000 to 5,000 prisoners remain unaccounted for.

Shortly after the fall of Kunduz, Qala-i-Jhangi was the scene of a major uprising that was suppressed with the support of U.S. airpower and allied special forces. Survivors were subsequently transferred to Shebergan and other prisons.

Human-rights groups have called for an investigation into the circumstances of the riot and the role played by American and British soldiers in the crushing of the revolt, which left some 600 prisoners dead.

Amnesty International expressed particular concern after a number of prisoners were found dead with their hands tied behind their backs.

Filmmaker Doran told our correspondent that he has gathered evidence suggesting that several thousand prisoners, including ethnic Arabs, Tajiks, and militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, disappeared following the capture of Kunduz by Dostum's forces. "The bottom line is that I have six eyewitnesses who have agreed to be interviewed concerning the activities of Northern Alliance soldiers and of American soldiers -- American special forces -- in the area of Shebergan. This is linked to the 8,000 Taliban prisoners who surrendered at Kunduz. The man who negotiated that surrender, Amirjan, himself says in my film that he counted 8,000 one by one, and that only 3,015 are still alive, [and] have been registered. He says: 'Where are the others?" Doran said.

Doran said that evidence he has collected also supports other eyewitness accounts telling of scores of prisoners sealed in metal containers and either shot or abandoned in the desert without food and water, which has been a widespread mode of execution since the beginning of the Afghan civil war in 1992. He said eyewitnesses claim most of the executions seem to have taken place during the transfer of prisoners to Shebergan from Qala-i-Jhangi. "It is very clear that many of [these prisoners] were killed after being loaded onto containers at Qala-i-Jhangi fort. They were gasping for air and the response was to fire bullets into the containers. One of our witnesses talks of blood dripping from the containers, [from] a group of containers as they went past his home," Doran said.

Doran said witnesses were initially reluctant to testify before a video camera and that he spent "many hours to convince them that it was very, very important that they would speak." Although most of them agreed to talk only after receiving assurances that they would not be identified, the filmmaker said all witnesses have said they would appear at any future court case. Doran said he plans to release soon a longer version of the documentary to broadcasters worldwide.

Doran's findings corroborate evidence already gathered by independent Western rights groups.

In a report released last month, the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said it had uncovered early this year several mass gravesites in the Mazar-i-Sharif area.

Some of the graves appear to date back to 1997 when the region fell into the hands of the Taliban. But the group said one of the sites, located in the Dasht-i-Laili desert on the outskirts of Shebergan, is believed to contain the remains of Taliban fighters who surrendered to the Northern Alliance last November. PHR experts say they have interviewed eyewitnesses who talked of heavily guarded container trucks bringing corpses to the site last December, some time after the Qala-i-Jhangi uprising.

PHR research consultant John Heffernan went to northern Afghanistan in January on a human-rights investigation during which he examined the suspected mass grave in Dasht-i-Laili. He told our correspondent that a subsequent international fact-finding mission helped determine that the remains there were indeed of people who had died only recently. "The United Nations in May sent an investigative team to Mazar [-i-Sharif] that included two of our friends and experts that had been seconded to this team. They performed autopsies on three people and they exhumed 15 bodies. And they could determine that the three people on [whom] they performed autopsies [had] died from suffocation. They also determined that they were of Pashtun ethnicity, which would indicate more than likely that they were Taliban," Heffernan said.

Heffernan said the relatively high density of bodies found in the small area forensic experts were able to examine may indicate a "fairly high number" of total corpses buried there.

The PHR has called upon Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, U.S. authorities, and allied governments to protect the site so that a more thorough investigation can be conducted to determine how many bodies the alleged mass grave contains. But Heffernan said the group's demands have so far gone unheeded. "When we came back from Afghanistan, I think on 1 March, we actually sent a letter to chairman Karzai calling for the protection of the site. We knew perfectly well that the Afghan authorities did not have the capacity to do this. So we circulated the letter to the U.S. government and the coalition partners, as well as to [UN] Security Council members, again calling for protection. We have had a virtual "no" response from any of these people who received the letter," Heffernan said.

Protecting the site will help determine not only how many people are buried at the site and how they died, but also who may be responsible for their deaths.

Independent investigations conducted over the past six months suggest that General Dostum's forces, which still control much of northern Afghanistan and which reportedly executed thousands of prisoners during the civil war, can be held directly accountable for the disappearance of Taliban fighters after the fall of Kunduz.

But Doran's documentary goes one step further, claiming to bring new evidence substantiating earlier allegations that U.S. Special Forces might have condoned atrocities committed against prisoners by their Afghan allies.

Doran said the accounts of some eyewitnesses -- one of whom admitted to executing prisoners himself -- suggest that the 150 or so U.S. military personnel present at Shebergan knew about the executions carried out during the transfer of prisoners from Qala-i-Jhangi. Witnesses interviewed by the filmmaker also told of U.S. soldiers witnessing subsequent executions and doing nothing to prevent them. "Basically, it looks as though the containers arrived at Shebergan prison. One of the witnesses says that when an American soldier saw what had happened, he said that they should get rid of the bodies, get them out, get them away from here before any satellite pictures were taken, at which point the containers carrying the dead, and in many cases the wounded and [also] some people that had just gone unconscious from suffocation, were then taken into the desert and witnesses tell us of how those who were still alive were shot on the spot and buried. My understanding is that they were shot by Northern Alliance fighters, but I should say that another witness -- one of the drivers himself who took the containers into the desert -- talks of 30 to 40 American soldiers being present on at least one occasion," Doran said.

The filmmaker said he has "no evidence whatsoever to suggest that American soldiers killed any of the prisoners."

The PHR's Heffernan said nothing he learned during his own investigative mission in Afghanistan can be used to corroborate Doran's claims regarding the behavior of U.S. troops. But he said reporters he spoke to there also told of eyewitnesses testifying of people being executed in the presence of U.S. soldiers.

Asked by RFE/RL to comment on Doran's new findings, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave LePan denied that any U.S. soldier might have witnessed massacres of Taliban captives. "The [Florida-based] U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of all coalition forces in Afghanistan, looked into these allegations months ago when they first surfaced, and they were found to be unfounded," LePan said.

Andy McEntee is an international human-rights lawyer and the former chairman of Amnesty International's U.K. branch. He told our correspondent that, given the gravity of the suspicions, conclusions of an in-house U.S. military investigation could not possibly be regarded as satisfactory. "I see it as, actually, irrelevant. These are not allegations of basic misconduct or someone breaking some protocol. These are allegations of participation in murder, disappearance, and torture," McEntee said.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has been widely criticized for refusing to grant prisoner-of-war status to Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters detained in Afghanistan, or to bring any disputed cases before a court as required under the Geneva conventions.

Last January, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said detainees, whether held in custody in Afghanistan or at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were "unlawful combatants" who do not have rights under international legislation. Rumsfeld's subsequent claims that the U.S. was treating its prisoners in accordance with the Geneva conventions have failed to convince human-rights groups.

On 26 April, "The Washington Post" daily criticized the U.S. administration for "washing its hands" of allegations of mistreatment and executions of prisoners by saying that the fate of detainees in Afghanistan was the sole responsibility of local warlords holding them.

But McEntee said that, after having watched several hours of Doran's footage, he believes there is now "credible evidence of serious offenses."

"With the confession statements, with other witness statements, with people who were there and who are implicating themselves but, as part of their story, tying in others, including their superior officers, whether Afghans or Americans, at the time, it comes together to be a body of evidence which I would see as prima facie, [that] makes out a case of serious criminal offenses which cannot be ignored," McEntee said.

McEntee said these offenses should be investigated in Afghanistan and he called upon U.S. police and prosecutors, whether civilian or military, to open a criminal investigation "so that there can be no doubt about the truth or the non-truth behind the allegations and the findings" in the Dasht-i-Laili desert. "These are serious criminal offenses under United States criminal law. And there is a precedent for this. You remember the case of Lieutenant Calley and the massacre of My Lai in Vietnam in the 1960s when American troops were investigated and prosecuted and sent to prison for war crimes. And what I am saying is that there is actually not really any difference here in terms of how it should be approached. This is something for the American authorities to do thoroughly, like they would deal with any accusation of serial killing, or mass murder, or brutal treatment of anyone," McEntee said.

Echoing the concerns of the PHR's Heffernan, McEntee called for the protection of the alleged mass gravesite, which he said should be treated as a legitimate crime scene. "It would be obstruction of justice not to do it," he concluded.

(Rhonda Wrzenski in RFE/RL's Washington bureau contributed to this report.)