Pentagon denies Afghan torture claims

By GARETH HARDING and ELIZABETH MANNING  |  June 13, 2002 at 7:18 PM
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The Pentagon Thursday described as "highly suspect in the face of it" allegations that U.S. troops had tortured Taliban and al Qaida prisoners in Afghanistan, and denied outright charges that American soldiers had done nothing to prevent the massacre of some 3,000 captured Islamic fighters who had surrendered to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.

The claims come in an explosive documentary by award-winning British filmmaker Jamie Doran -- screened Wednesday for members of the European Parliament at their headquarters in Strasbourg, France. The film documents events following the Nov. 21 fall of Konduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in northern Afghanistan.

The Islamic fighters who surrendered were taken to the Qala-i-Changi fort near Mazar-i-Sharif, headquarters of the notorious Northern Alliance warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. On Nov. 25, the fort was the scene of a revolt by hard-core Taliban and al Qaida prisoners, apparently incensed by the presence of U.S. Special Forces among their captors.

The uprising was bloodily suppressed with the help of American air power.

Subsequently, about 7,500 prisoners were taken to a crowded jail in Sheberghan. In the film a witness charged that American interrogators tortured suspected al Qaida members there. The witness tells the interviewer: "I was a witness when an American soldier broke one prisoner's neck and poured acid on others."

But Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Lapan denied the charges to United Press International in Washington. He said he did not know whether U.S. Central Command in Florida -- which runs the war in Afghanistan -- had looked into allegations of torture, "but I would consider them highly suspect in the face of it."

"Our service members don't participate in torture of any type," he went on.

He said U.S. soldiers are "highly trained, professional and trained in the laws of war and proper conduct."

After interrogation in Sheberghan jail, the film charges, thousands of Taliban prisoners were driven to the Dasht Leili desert in container trucks by their Northern Alliance captors and summarily executed. Doran's documentary quotes eyewitnesses as saying 30-40 American troops were present at the execution.

The Afghan driver of one container truck, in which 200-300 prisoners were crammed, told the film-makers he shot holes in the side to provide ventilation. Over half the prisoners died on route to the desert, the driver says.

Another witness, who described smelling rotting flesh from the containers when filling his car with petrol, told the filmmaker: "Blood was leaking from the vehicles. It was horrible."

Doran has exclusive footage of the desert scene where the alleged massacre took place. Skulls, clothing and limbs still protrude from the mounds of sand, more than six months after the alleged massacre.

The documentary has not yet been broadcast, but Doran's earlier footage of the aftermath of the Qala-i-Changi uprising -- including prisoners who hand apparently been shot with their hands tied -- ignited controversy about the conduct of American special operations troops and their Northern Alliance allies during the dying days of the Taliban regime.

French Euro-MP Francis Wurtz, whose left-wing group organized the special screening, said he would call for an urgent debate in the European Parliament at the next session in July.

"We reject categorically that the ends justify the means," he told reporters. "You can't fight terrorism by treading human rights under foot."

The Pentagon's Lapan told UPI that Central Command individually questioned its forces in the area several months ago following the discovery of graves at Dasht Leili and subsequent accusations that U.S. soldiers either witnessed the massacre or were aware it took place.

"Central Command looked into it and found no evidence of participation or knowledge or presence," he said. "Our guys weren't there, didn't watch and didn't know about it -- if indeed anything like that happened."

Filmmaker Doran, on the other hand, insisted the Afghans he interviewed who said they saw either torture by U.S. troops or their presence at the massacre were from different tribes, had no personal axes to grind and were not paid for their contributions. Their names were withheld solely to protect them, he added.

"They had absolutely nothing to gain from being in the film, but they had their lives to lose," he said, adding that a further 20 Afghan soldiers in addition to the six principal witnesses in the film have since indicated their willingness to talk about what happened.

The independent filmmaker, whose documentaries have been seen in over 35 countries, said he decided to release a rough-cut of his account because he feared Afghan forces were poised to cover up evidence.

"It is absolutely essential that the site of the mass grave is protected; otherwise the evidence will disappear," Doran told UPI in an interview after the film's debut in Strasbourg.

Leading international human rights lawyer Andrew McEntee, who was also present at the special screening, said it was "clear there is prima facie evidence of serious war crimes committed not just under international law but also under the laws of the United States itself."

McEntee called for an independent investigation into the affair. "No functioning criminal justice system can choose to ignore this evidence," he said.

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(UPI European Correspondent Harding reported from Strasbourg, France and Deputy Foreign Editor Manning from Washington.)

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