By Rory McCarthyGuardian
November 18, 2002
The United Nations has found evidence that a leading Afghan warlord and strong ally of the US tortured witnesses to stop them testifying against him in a war crimes inquiry, a senior UN source said last night.
General Abdul Rashid Dostam, an Uzbek warlord from northern Afghanistan, was a part of the opposition Northern Alliance which overthrew the Taliban regime with US help, and has been used extensively by the American military in operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Witness accounts suggested that his troops were responsible for torturing and killing up to 1,000 Taliban prisoners after the regime fell in November last year. If confirmed, this would be the worst atrocity committed during the US campaign in Afghanistan, and would raise questions about the role of US special forces troops who were supervising the detention of the prisoners. Now a UN investigation into the killings has discovered that several witnesses in the north have been jailed and appear to have been tortured.
"Not all of the allegations are proven yet, but we have enough evidence that would lead us to believe there are serious concerns," the UN official said in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
Some of the witnesses escaped to the capital Kabul and others were interviewed in northern Afghanistan. Gen Dostam's stronghold is in Sheberghan, close to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
"We could not examine them (the prisoners) physically and they were wearing the traditional long dress, but people with the investigation team saw them and said they were a mess, badly traumatised," the source said.
Reports have also suggested that two witnesses were executed by Gen Dostam's men. He denies the claim and the UN team which looked into one of the alleged executions found no hard evidence. But a team of UN investigators which has just left northern Afghanistan is expected to compile a damning report which threatens to embarrass the US military and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to rein in the warlords.
Gen Dostam's spokesman, Faizullah Zaki, denied that witnesses had been jailed and tortured. "We will take action against anyone who did these things," he said. Thousands of Taliban troops, including poorly educated young Pakistanis, were rounded up after the battle of Kunduz in late November when the Taliban made a desperate final stand in the north.
After they surrendered, the prisoners were transported for several hours in sealed metal shipping containers to Sheberghan prison, one of Gen Dostam's jails which was then under US control. Prisoners have since described how they suffocated in the containers and how hundreds among them were killed. Investigators have found evidence of a mass grave in the desert at Dasht-i-Leili, close to the jail at Sheberghan.
Physicians for Human Rights, a group from Boston, identified the mass grave earlier this year and conducted forensic studies there. They suggested that up to 3,000 of the 8,000 prisoners taken to Sheberghan may have died. Gen Dostam earlier this month promised to cooperate with the war crimes investigation and protect witnesses.
But investigations into the deaths have been badly delayed. A UN inquiry into the mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili was stalled for six months and many aid workers in the area said he intimidated witnesses.
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