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Aired August 29, 2002 - 15:30:00   ET



HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANI PRESIDENT: We are willing to have full cooperation with the international community, with the United Nations, to investigate the allegations of the mass grave and see what happened there.

JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Charges of mass killings leveled against United States ally and Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Human rights groups charge captured Taliban fighters were crammed into shipping containers for transport. There they smothered and were buried in the desert.

The charges could ultimately come to rest at the feet of the United States military.

On this edition of Q&A, are there crimes against humanity in the war against terror?


CLANCY: Hello and welcome, once again, to Q&A. I'm Jim Clancy.

Tonight, more shocking evidence from Afghanistan. Another mass grave. Hundreds killed. But how?

CNN's Matthew Chance was in northern Afghanistan at the location of one mass grave. He's with us now from the capital city of Kabul.

Matthew, welcome to Q&A.

Normally, I would start asking the questions. Tonight, I really have to ask you, what are the important questions being asked about what happened in northern Afghanistan?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, the important issue, I suppose, the important questions being asked, exactly what happened up in northern Afghanistan at that time when the Taliban were defeated and surrendered in northern Afghanistan, and who exactly knew what was going on.

There is little doubt that a lot of people, a lot of Taliban prisoners, were killed during the very chaotic days around that period of the Taliban surrender, around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the northern city of Kunduz. There is very little, though, knowledge about who exactly knew about that. As you say, some of the blame, or some of the responsibility at least, may lay at the feet of United States soldiers. Others are pointing the finger directly at the main warlord up in northern Afghanistan, Gen. Dostum, as the man totally behind this.

We with CNN here in Afghanistan have been up in that part of -- remote part of the country, conducting our own investigation, and these are the kinds of things that we came up with and things we saw.


(voice-over): In the killing grounds of Afghanistan's north, another gruesome secret is unearthed.

Under melting heat, the bones of men who lost the battle for this desert land, Taliban fighters killed then cast in shallow graves. More bodies for investigators into possible war crimes to examine.

ROSS WICKWARE, WFT SECURITY ADVISER: How many? It appears to me that there's certainly quite a few. I can see five skulls just standing here.

CHANCE (on camera):: And how characteristic is this kind of site for this area? Are there many more sites like this, do you think, around Mazar?

WICKWARE: Information indicates that this is quite common. There are sites like this all around the area.

CHANCE (voice-over): Sites of mass killings, some apparently carried out by America's Afghan allies.

(on camera): This latest site to emerge raises even more questions about what exactly happened here when the Taliban had been defeated. there is no shortage of evidence that mass killings took place, but how and why so many of these people died has yet to emerge.

(voice-over): At the prison in Shibagan (ph), Taliban fighters still behind bars talk of their surrender last November. They told me they were brought here tightly packed in trucks and shipping containers, and that many of their Taliban comrades did not survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PRISONER: We don't know how many people died. We know that we were 12,000 people, and here are only about 4,000 or 3,500. We don't know where is the other people.

CHANCE: But out of town, the desert could hold some answers. The U.N. says it's now protecting the site where as many as 1,000 surrendered Taliban may lie. Initial findings suggest they were suffocated, possibly in shipping containers, before being dumped.

So to the warlord and United States ally who may be to blame. Gen. Dostum's Northern Alliance forces received the Taliban surrender here, and he admits as many as 200 captives died on route to prison. He won't elaborate on how much the United States knew or approved of his treatment of prisoners of war.

With new and old graves scattered all over Afghanistan, it could be years before this country's catalog of war crimes are brought to justice and before it's clear what responsibility for the actions of its Afghan allies, the United States, might bear.


CHANCE: It's worth remembering, Jim, that there is no direct evidence at the moment linking United States forces on the ground in northern Afghanistan directly with these alleged killings, these human rights abuses, but human rights groups have been investigating what exactly happened there for several months.

They confirm, or say, that there is enough suggestion on the ground that United States forces may have been present at the times these killings have taken place, enough suggestion to warrant some kind of full inquiry into their exact role -- Jim.

CLANCY: Matthew, just quickly, it is worth asking, as we look at the pictures of those people held still in northern Afghanistan, what are their living conditions? What are their prospects for ever being released?

CHANCE: Well, that specific prison we saw in the report, Shibagan (ph) prison facility, is one of the worst, really, in Afghanistan, that is holding prisoners from that period, Taliban prisoners, not just Afghans, but many Pakistanis crammed inside those cells as well. Many hundreds still held in those cells in Shibagan (ph) in really quite appalling and crammed conditions.

The official policy of the Afghan government is to release those prisoners if deemed no longer to be a threat to Afghanistan and people deemed not to have committed serious crimes, in their words, against the people of Afghanistan, and to hold on to those they say have committed those crimes.

But clearly, the sifting out process has not been carried through yet, and there are still a lot of people being held in very poor conditions -- Jim.

CLANCY: All right. Matthew Chance, there, reporting from Kabul.

Now, one organization that is looking closely at all of this is the group Physicians for Human Rights. It recently sent a letter to United States Sect. of State Donald Rumsfeld, and Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, joins us now from Washington.

What did you say in that letter and (AUDIO GAP).

LEONARD RUBENSTEIN, PHYSICIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Well, we are calling for an investigation of the site, security for the site, and ultimately a determination of the truth of what happened in the events after the surrender of the Taliban.

CLANCY: And any response from the United States defense secretary?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, we heard yesterday, indirectly, through a statement of the Pentagon, that the United States has satisfied itself that there were no American troops involved in the events of the deaths of these prisoners.

We think the Pentagon's responsibility goes beyond that, actually, because this was an alliance. It was a proxy war. And we think the United States has a responsibility to assure that its allies in the field in circumstances like this don't commit war crimes, and if there are serious allegations that they have, that there be a full investigation.

CLANCY: When you look at the circumstances, doctor, under all of these -- difficult war-time situation -- prisoners packed into containers - - how much of this can you say was just a matter of circumstance, and how much do you have to fear was really a matter of planning?

RUBENSTEIN: You know, unfortunately, Jim, we can't answer that question yet. I mean, we can't answer that, because we need to find the facts, and the facts are in the grave.

It's often true that you can learn what happened when you go in and find out what's in there. In Bosnia and Rwanda and many other places where Physicians for Human Rights has worked, you find answers to the questions, like the ones you are posing, right there.

And that's why we think it's so important that the site be protected and for all time we know we can find out what happened.

CLANCY: All right -- Leonard Rubenstein, I want to ask you to stay right there, as we go back to Kabul now.

A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Omar Samad, joining us.

Mr. Samad, can you tell me the position -- the Afghan government has said it will cooperate, it will investigate. What's the next step?

OMAR SAMAD, SPOKESMAN FOR THE AFGHAN FOREIGN MIN.: Well, after issuing that statement a few days ago, that we will cooperate and we would like to find out what has happened and who did it, and under what circumstances, and who is buried in those mass graves, I think the next step, which was also taken, was to send a team, a preliminary team, basically to go and find some facts about basic issues.

We also have had the local leaders there, including Gen. Dostum and two other regional leaders, to talk about this issue in the past day or two, and they haven't denied that people have not been killed. But at the same time, they are saying that the facts are somewhat different, that we need to do more to get to the truth of this.

And the position of the government is to continue looking into this matter.

CLANCY: All right, now, I do know that this government was not even formed at the time that these alleged human rights violations took place, but sir, what evidence, what have you heard? Were United States forces on the ground there? Do you believe that United States forces may have known what was going on?

SAMAD: Very difficult to tell. As you said, this particular government, which took office in December of last year and has gone through a loya jirga, which created a new government last June, was not in place, so there's not much we know about it.

It was a different time, when the coalition forces and the Afghan resistance forces were fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. Some surrendered. Some fought. We were facing a very difficult and very deadly enemy. We shouldn't forget that these people who are still incarcerated, some of whom are considered very dangerous, were people who terrorized the Afghan nation for many years.

But at the same time, as far as United States troops and special forces are concerned, we don't have any information on that. It's difficult to tell where they may have been or what they may have been doing, or what do they know about this.

CLANCY: All right, Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, there in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Thank you so much for being with us. We're going to lose that satellite right now.

We've got to take short break.

Coming up next on Q&A, where could all of these discoveries lead us? We'll find out.


CLANCY: Welcome back to Q&A as we ask, have there been war crimes in the war on terror.

With us from London is Geoffrey Robertson. He's queen's council and human rights lawyer. In New York, David Scheffer, senior vice president of the United Nations Association of the United States. And in Washington, Leonard Rubenstein of Physicians for Human Rights.

Geoffrey Robertson, what concerns you most when you see the videotape, when you hear the reports -- mass graves, perhaps 1,000 people in them. These are Taliban, people who surrendered.

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER: Well, without jumping to conclusions, clearly there is now enough evidence to require an inquiry.

I think no matter how savage fighters are, they're entitled to protection under the Geneva conventions. We all remember the horrors of the Japanese conduct towards prisoners of war, when 15 percent of them were killed.

We have to, I think, have an independent inquiry. Independent inquiries can clear the air, as the recent United Nations inquiry into Jenin did. The Israeli government didn't cooperate, but to a large extent it removed a lot of the propaganda allegations. So I think there's a lot in it for America to cooperate with such an inquiry.

It must be independent. I'm rather worried that Gen. Dostum is intruding himself into the Afghan inquiries, because of course, his conduct as the commander responsible for those prisoners is one of the crucial issues to be assessed.

CLANCY: In New York, David Scheffer, certainly Gen. Dostum may have something to worry about, but I think Washington is every bit as concerned that United States troops may have been on the ground there.

DAVID SCHEFFER, U.N. ASSOC. OF U.S.A.: Well, it may be. We'll have to see what the facts disclose. And I think the Pentagon probably needs to continue to investigate this internally to see if in fact there were any American soldiers or personnel that were aware of these events as they were occuring.

But equally important, you know, this information did start to come out after it occurred, and I think we have to applaud the Physicians for Human Rights for their research and their work on the ground, which took risks, to uncover this. In March, their report came out. It was conveyed to the Pentagon.

And frankly, once a party such as the United States, in an armed conflict of this character, in which it is so deeply involved militarily, becomes aware of actions of this character having taken place, then that should have been an immediate alarm bell for investigations and fulfilling even the slightest obligations under the third Geneva convention to demonstrate that the United States was entirely on top of the obligations of its allies, as well as itself, towards prisoners of war.

This is a real test for the credibility of the United States on the ground.

CLANCY: Leonard Rubenstein, praise there, of course, for your organization. And you have done a job, up until now, but what are you working on now? What is the organization trying to do at this point in Afghanistan?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, first of all, thanks for those kind words.

What we're trying to do now is, number one, have the site secured. Unless the evidence is preserved, we'll never know what happened, and right now we don't have constant security. So that's number one.

CLANCY: Are you worried, just because of the nature of all of this, and because of the past activities of Gen. Dostum, that those sits could be at risk?

RUBENSTEIN: Sites are always at risk. We know that in former Yugoslavia sites were tampered with. It doesn't take a lot to bring a bulldozer or a backhoe into a site and all of the sudden the evidence is gone. So we need to do that first and foremost.

And the next thing is to get a team in to examine what happened. How many bodies are in there? What are the circumstances of their deaths? Those are the kinds of answers scientists can provide and they can provide them in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of security.

CLANCY: Geoffrey Robertson.

ROBERTSON: But it has to be a team that is responsible for -- to some independent authority. It's no use inviting the Afghan government to run this inquiry.

CLANCY: What would be a good independent authority?

ROBERTSON: Well, the United Nations did a very good job, I think, recently on Jenin. An independent inquiry setup as soon as possible, to arrange for a team to go in from many countries, and begin securing the evidence and analyzing it in order that there can be a proper inquiry made.

We can't, I think, in this case, rely simply on the Pentagon's say so. I haven't seen any compelling evidence to suggest that America was at fault here, but that's why, given the allegations that are being made, there has to be an impartial inquiry. I see no signs, incidentally, of one being setup.

CLANCY: David Scheffer, you were the point man for the Clinton administration on war crimes issue. What do you see as the threshold here? They were prisoners. They were packed into containers. What is the threshold here for, you know, crimes against humanity? War crimes?

SCHEFFER: Well, I think the real issue is war crimes here, and the threshold, I think, has already been exceeded here, in terms of an event which, once it became known to American authorities that this event took place, one hopes that first of all, there would have been a very aggressive investigation.

But even if that hasn't taken place, it needs to take place now, because, you know, the United States is out there advocating compliance with the law of war, and yet not embracing the International Criminal Court. It needs to demonstrate now that it is addressing this as aggressively as possible, to demonstrate that nations can indeed take up these challenges under the Geneva conventions and perform them.

Otherwise, its credibility on other fronts will be severely undermined.

CLANCY: But David, the threshold here.

ROBERTSON: But it already is undermined.


CLANCY: Gen. Dostum has already said it happened. It happened. We were transporting them. It was 200. It wasn't 2,000. He's already said it. But, David Scheffer, can the United States still be implicated? They were backing Gen. Dostum.

SCHEFFER: It depends on the facts, but if the facts bear out that in fact there was some exposure of American forces to these events and they were not reported up the chain of command, as they're supposed to be, even under United States army regulations, then I think there's a serious exposure problem.

But in addition to that, under the third Geneva convention, we're so tightly imbedded with our allies in Afghanistan in these military operations that there is a question of our responsibility to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice as an ally. That is in the third Geneva convention, if you read it reasonably.

CLANCY: Leonard Rubenstein, do you agree with that?

RUBENSTEIN: We're not in a position at the moment to make any determinations. We're an organization that's trying to focus on the facts.

And I agree that we need an independent investigation. We have called for a mandate from the United Nations.

We also, though, think there's a role for the Afghan people and the Afghan government. After all, in many of these situations, the process of looking into war crimes is the process of ending impunity in the country. It's the process of restructuring the government.

So we think there's a role for the Afghans, as well as for the United Nations, and of course we have called for United States support for this investigation.

CLANCY: All right. Geoffrey Robertson, the last word.

ROBERTSON: Yes, I agree entirely, but we've got to give the Geneva conventions the credit that they're not getting at Camp X-Ray. It is vital, I think, to revive our universal support for the Geneva conventions on prisoners of war, that the Bush administration has thrown into question by not accepting them as operating in the detainees at Camp X-Ray.

CLANCY: All right.

ROBERTSON: And, of course, we should have the support of the Afghan government, but the inquiry itself should be independent, both of their government and the Pentagon.

CLANCY: Geoffrey, we've got to leave it there. Our thanks to Geoffrey Robertson, to David Scheffer, and to Leonard Rubenstein for being with us. Our thanks also to Afghanistan spokesman Omar Samad for joining us.

That's Q&A for today. I'm Jim Clancy. The news is next, here on CNN.





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