War Crimes in Afghanistan. Or: What You Don't Learn in Science Class

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) demonstrated in a more than impressive way this week how science and technology can advance the cause of human rights. Using forensic analysis and satellite imagery, they did an excellent job in documenting a war crime—and the subsequent US supported cover-up—in Afghanistan, where in the wake of the US led invasion in 2001 hundreds of prisoners of war were killed by a US backed warlord and dumped in a mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili. Check out this must see video:

The New York Times has covered the story in an extensive piece last weekend. PHR has set up its own website, where you can also urge Attorney General Eric Holder to halt the cover-up.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—who supported the project and with whom AIUSA’s own Science for Human Rights project has a longstanding partnership—also provided a detailed analysis of the gravesite and its cover-up. Here’s a quick summary of the story:

In 2002, PHR investigators discovered the presence of a mass grave site in Dasht-e-Leili, outside of the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan.  The grave site is reported to contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Taliban prisoners of war. Forensic analysis suggests that most of the prisoners died from suffocation. They reportedly died while inside closed metal shipping containers.

Upon returning to the site in 2008, Stefan Schmitt, Director of PHR’s International Forensic Program, noticed that the mass grave might have been tampered with.  To gather additional evidence, PHR requested satellite imagery from the area, which showed two sizeable pits, compromising the original area. The satellite imagery obtained by the AAAS indicated that there was earth-moving equipment present on August 5, 2006 along with one of two new pits.  Later imagery on October 24, 2007, revealed the second pit in the same location as the earth-moving equipment from August 5.  

The left image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on August 5, 2006, and indicates one open pit visible at the mass grave site, with two likely vehicles atop the area which would become the second pit. The right image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on October 24, 2007, with both open pits visible. © 2009 Digital Globe. Images taken from http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/afghanistan/afghanistan.shtml


The Bush Administration discouraged any attempts to investigate the episode, as the warlord suspected of committing the crimes, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was on the C.I.A.’s payroll, while his militia worked alongside the United States Special Forces in 2001.  The Department of State has urged the Obama administration to oppose Gen. Dostum’s reappointment in the Afghani government; however the president has yet to take action on this issue.
As we still wait for the President to ensure accountability for past human rights violations of the Bush administration, this is another test of Obama’s commitment to human rights.  It will be interesting to see if the administration fully investigates the 2001 killings in Afghanistan, at a time when Obama is sending an additional 21,000 more troops to battle the increasing Taliban insurgency. A first response by Obama to PHR’s work seems at least promising.

Jacki Mowery contributed to this post

200th Execution under one Governor

With the execution of Terry Lee Hankins last night, Texas Governor Rick Perry has reached a pretty apalling benchmark: 200 executions in his eight and a half years as governor.  As in other states, the death penalty in Texas has proven to be ineffective as a deterrent, racist in its application, and extremely costly. Not to mention that Texas does not have a strong reputation for considering all of the evidence before going forth with an executuion: there have been at least eight executions in the last twenty years where there was strong evidence of the defendant’s innocence – five of them were from Texas. This overzealous approach to justice means that Texas sometimes fails to punish the true perpetrators of some pretty horrific crimes.  Texas has been responsible for 439 executions since the death penalty was re-applied in 1976. That’s 38% of all executions in the United States since that time.

Terry Hankins was executed by lethal injection around 6:19pm for shooting his two step children and his wife. He had also confessed to killing his father and half-sister around 2000, though he was only tried for the first three deaths.

The state of Texas is likely to continue its reckless spree of executions. Hankins was the 16th execution this year, and the state still has four more executions scheduled over the next four months, the next of which is Kenneth Mosley on July 16.

Capital Punishment Slowing Down

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its Year End Report (pdf) for 2008.  It reveals clearly that the trend towards growing skepticism and diminishing (and more regional) use of capital punishment is continuing.  There were 37 executions in 2008, the lowest total since 1994, and there were only 111 death sentences passed.  For the second straight year, this was the lowest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated since 1976.  (In the peak year, 1999, there were 98 executions and 284 death sentences.)

Four men were exonerated for America’s death rows this year, increasing already substantial public doubts that an imperfect system can, or should, carry out such an irreversible punishment. 

Executions this year were also almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon.  Depending on your definition of The South – are Kentucky and/or Oklahoma “southern” states? – this region accounted for all but 2, or 4, or 5 executions in 2008.  But the dramatic decline in death sentences is taking place in the South just as it is everywhere else  in the U.S. (except at the Federal level, where death sentences have doubled since outgoing President Bush took office). 

As the report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (pdf) revealed last week, death sentences in that notoriously execution-friendly state also dropped to a post-reinstatement low, with only 9 sentences recorded in 2008.  Of course, Texas continues to execute at an alarming rate (accounting for almost half the executions this year), but to a certain extent execution numbers are a reflection of where the death penalty stood 10 or 12 years ago (the average length of time it takes for a death sentence to be carried out).  In another decade, we may see execution numbers in Texas and the rest of the South dropping to the levels they are currently at everywhere else, which is almost zero.