Dr. Jennifer Leaning, Nathaniel Raymond and Dr. Nizam Peerwani of Physicians for Human Rights discuss with Terry Gross their investigation of the alleged massacre of hundreds or possibly thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Dasht-i-Leili in Afghanistan in December 2001.
Nathaniel Raymond [Physicians for Human Rights]: Our consuming fear from day one, Terry, was that any evidence there was going to be removed and/or destroyed. We were also deeply concerned about witnesses who had spoken to journalists such as Newsweek, to the United Nations and to others and now sadly we know two things: One, we know that there is clear evidence — our forensic team documented [this] in 2008 — of tampering at the site. And we also have satellite imagery which shows that in 2006, less than a month approximately after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in US federal court, there is one large hole present at the site and what appears to be a hydrolic excavator and a truck digging what becomes the second large trench that our forensic team found in 2008. But for me, and I want to make this very clear, the great tragedy in this case has been the loss of the witnesses.
We now know through State Department documents we received through Freedom of Information Act request that at least four witnesses — innocent men who were bulldozer drivers and truck drivers — have been tortured, killed and disappeared.
Terry Gross: Nathaniel, your Freedom of Information Act files related to the mass grave — your request was made in June of 2006 — and I know you had a lot of trouble getting the Freedom of Information files, although you finally got them. What kind of trouble did you have?
NR: Well, the trouble that Physicians for Human Rights had was the Bush administration did not want to release any documents and so with the help of Ropes and Gray, a law firm in Washington, we were able to pressure them to release the documents and we started receiving them in 2008 and what we found was frankly jaw dropping.
In a November 2002 State Department intelligence report there was a body count and it was from a three-letter redacted intelligence source, which means we couldn’t see who was reporting it, but whoever was reporting it was identified by three letters [editor’s wild guess: possibly a combination of the letters “C”, “I” and “A”]. And this three-letter source said at least 1,500 to as many as 2,000 had died as part of the massacre.
And what we also learned, which was very hard for us at Physicians for Human Rights to see, is that the US government had confirmation that at least four witnesses had been tortured, killed and/or disappeared.
TG: What does it say to you that within these Freedom of Information Act files there was a source, whose name was redacted, who actually gave an estimated body count in this mass grave?
NR: Speaking with former Bush administration officials, that source was an agency. And we still do not have confirmation about what US intelligence agency that was, but it was absolutely outrageous. The fact that the US government would be saying there was no grounds for a US investigation, no grounds for security of the site, no grounds for protection of witnesses, but they had a body count for years, and they had clear evidence that people — innocent bystanders in this case — were being killed and they did nothing. [continued…]