Rafiq ur Rehman would be entitled to a lawyer if he were a murderer. But when a CIA drone kills your mother and wounds you and your two young children, you don’t warrant the same rights as criminals.
Rehman was scheduled to testify before Congress on October 1. He will not be heard because the State Department has denied his lawyer a visa.
Representative Alan Grayson of Florida asked the Rehmans and their lawyer Shahzad Akbar to come to Capitol Hill. This would have been the first time Congress has heard directly from survivors of U.S. drone strikes.
Akbar contacted the Rehmans a week after the October 24, 2012 drone strike in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas which took the life of the children’s grandmother. A prominent human rights attorney who has handled several high-profile cases against U.S. drones, Akbar is founder and director of Pakistan’s Foundation for Fundamental Rights and a legal fellow with the United Kingdom human rights NGO Reprieve.
Akbar has traveled to the United States several times. For two years, he even held a US diplomatic visa while a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Akbar told the London Guardian that he never had problems coming to the United States until he began representing drone victims. In 2011, Akbar, who had been invited to speak at a human rights symposium at Columbia University Law School, was denied a visa. No reason was ever given. The next year, Akbar nearly missed the first drone summit in Washington, D.C. organized by CODEPINK because his visa was held up. Now, in 2013, the Rehmans have received their visas, but Akbar, who put in his application two days before his clients did, has not.
You would almost think Akbar has enemies in high places.
In December, 2010, Akbar outted Jonathan Banks, CIA Station Chief in Islamabad. Akbar named Banks as defendant in a $500 million lawsuit for wrongful death brought by Karim Khan, a journalist in North Waziristan; Khan’s brother and son had been killed in a CIA drone strike. Khan’s brother had been a schoolteacher who had continued to teach despite threats from the Taliban. Banks never answered the lawsuit’s charges; the CIA got him out of Pakistan fast.
Britain, too, has reason to be displeased with Akbar. Britain conducts no drone strikes but facilitates U.S. strikes through sharing intelligence. On March 17, 2011, a U.S. drone killed 40 members of a jirga, or tribal council, in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. One of the victims was the father of Noor Khan (no connection to Karim Khan) who subsequently sued Foreign Secretary William Hague for Britain’s aiding and abetting his father’s killing. The lawsuit (which has been dismissed) was carried on by British firm Leigh Day & Co., but it was Shahzad Akbar who was first in touch with Khan and who was the motivating force behind the suit.
Akbar is not the only opponent of drones who has had a monkey wrench thrown in his travel plans. Baraa Shiban, Reprieve’s project director for Yemen, was detained at London’s Gatwick Airport in September under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. (Schedule 7 had been used to detain David Miranda at Heathrow Airport for nine hours, the maximum amount of time allowed under the Act. Miranda is the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the story of Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA electronic spying on Americans.)
One high-profile incident involved Imran Khan. Khan, an internationally famous former cricket star, ran unsuccessfully for Prime Minister of Pakistan earlier this year. Last October 26, while flying to a fundraising dinner in New York, Khan was taken off his international flight by U.S. immigration officials and grilled about his views on drone strikes and jihad. A major plank in Khan’s campaign had been his promise that, if elected, he would shoot down U.S. drones.
All this legal activity takes place against a backdrop of lethal U.S. drone strikes which Pakistan has been unable to stop. The United States justifies the strikes’ invasion of Pakistani sovereignty with the claim that Pakistan secretly consents to drone strikes while objecting to them publicly in order to placate its citizens. This may have been true at one time. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military dictator from 1999 to 2007, now disgraced and facing murder charges in Pakistan after foolishly returning from exile in Britain, told CNN in April that he had secretly consented to some drone strikes.
Whatever may have been true in the past is true no longer. Pakistan’s Parliament has passed three unanimous resolutions demanding an end to U.S. drone strikes. And in a landmark decision handed down in May, the High Court of Peshawar condemned drone strikes as war crimes. The High Court pointed to the United Nations Charter’s prohibition of the “threat or use of force” except as authorized by the Security Council or in self-defense. Citing the requirement of proportionality under international humanitarian law, the Court called the number of militants killed by drones “negligible” when contrasted with the “shockingly considerable” numbers of casualties among civilians.
The lawyer who argued the case was Shahzad Akbar.
If the High Court’s decision left any doubts as to Pakistan’s feelings about drones, they were laid to rest on June 5. On that day, Nawaz Sharif, who had held the office twice in the 1990s, was sworn in as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister. Sharif unambiguously called for a halt to U.S. drone strikes, telling Parliament that “this chapter shall now be closed.”
The U.S. signaled its compliance two days later with a drone strike which killed nine people. Like a rapist, the U.S. continues to believe that “no” means “yes.”
The attack followed President Barrack Obama’s promise made to great fanfare during a speech at the National Defense University on May 23 that the U.S. would use drones with more restraint.
The silencing of Shahzad Akbar demonstrates that the victims of drone strikes have no voice in the United States. Think about it. Have you ever seen an image of a bleeding survivor or a charred drone victim in our media, much less the victims’ devastated homes and villages? That is no accident. The cases of Shahzad Akbar, Baraa Shiban, and Imran Khan prove that the U.S. government and its allies are determined that drone victims will have no voice.
The victims must be heard.
Charles Pierson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.