Human Rights Lawyer Claims US Blocking Him From Telling Congress About Drone Devastation

Lawyer for Pakistani family testifying to Congress about their drone horrors claims he's been blacklisted.
By @katierucke |
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    On Oct. 29, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) is scheduled to host a Congressional briefing allowing Pakistanis to share their stories of survival and woe after their neighborhoods suffered devastation from U.S. drone strikes.

    The briefing will mark the first time that American lawmakers hear it from the mouths of civilian victims themselves just how destructive a drone strike can be. While the U.S. State Department has granted visas to the victims’ friends and relatives, the agency has yet to issue a visa to their lawyer, Shahzad Akbar.

    In an interview with Mint Press News, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has been particularly vocal against the use of drones, remarked that “Congress is not listening or paying attention.” He said he thinks the only thing that will get Congress to recognize the harm of drone warfare is pressure from the American people.

    Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer who founded the human rights organization The Foundation for Fundamental Rights in 2010. He’s also a legal fellow with the U.K.-based prisoner-support group Reprieve and has represented family members of more than 150 victims of U.S drone strikes in litigation against both the U.S. and Pakistan, the latter for “failing to protect its citizens against Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone strikes.”

    Though he submitted his most recent application to travel to the United States in August, which included a request for approval from Rep. Grayson, who called for the briefings, his visa has still not been approved.

    “Once again I find myself being denied entry to the U.S.,” Akbar said. “This time to stop me talking to American lawmakers who have invited me to speak about what I have witnessed. I hope to tell them about the impact of drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan, and to shed light on the fact that rather than keeping the US safe, counterterrorism policies like drone strikes are instead a threat to America’s national security.

    “Failing to grant me a visa silences the 156 civilian drone strike victims and families that I represent. These families, who have lost children, parents, and siblings, are now trying through legal means to achieve justice. They have powerful stories to tell in their own voices, but will not travel without me, their legal representative.”

    In response to Akbar’s troubles, Grayson released a statement encouraging the State Department to approve Akbar’s visa so that his clients can share their stories with Congress and the American public — because not only is Akbar the lawyer for some of the families, he is also their translator.

    Talking to the Guardian, Grayson said that the state department had not given him “a specific reason as to why [Akbar]’s having trouble getting in.”

    “I don’t know why the State Department has taken this action, but I think it’s extremely important that when it comes to a national security matter like drone attacks, we hear not only from the proponents of these attacks, but also from the victims,” Grayson said. “We have a chronic problem in Congress that when the administration is involved in one side of the issue, we rarely hear about the other side of the issue.”

    News of Akbar’s renewed attempts to enter into the United States came at the same time as Amnesty International released a joint report with Human Rights Watch, which poked holes in the Obama administration’s insistence that the drone program is “kept on a very tight leash” and has not resulted in “a huge number of civilian casualties.”


    Giving a voice to the voiceless

    Nine-year-old Nabeela ur-Rehman is one of the Pakistani drone-victims who is scheduled to testify in Washington, D.C. next week, along with her father Rafeeq, an elementary school teacher, and her 13-year-old brother Zubair.

    The Rehman family, one of Akbar’s clients, are from a village in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, which has been hit particularly hard by U.S. drone strikes. If Akbar is not able to travel in time for the briefing next week, the Rehman’s will be accompanied by lawyer Jennifer Gibson.

    On Oct. 24, 2012, the family’s home in Ghundi Kala was hit by a drone strike, killing 68-year-old Mamana Bibi, the village’s only midwife, and Nabeela’s grandmother, “as she picked vegetables in the family’s fields while surrounded by a handful of her grandchildren.”

    Nabeela tried to run but was too badly burned to do so. She later was rushed to a hospital with shrapnel wounds. Zubair was taken to Islamabad for his injuries, but when the medical bills became too much for the family, he was moved to a different hospital where shrapnel was removed from his leg. Asma, Nabeela’s 7-year-old sister, has had hearing problems ever since the strike.

    Rehman said there were no fighters present when the missiles were fired. Akbar reported the same thing, saying, “There is no evidence of any militant killed,” and that the only people hurt were children; a total of nine, three of whom were seriously injured. He added that neither U.S. nor Pakistani officials have disclosed the names or any other details of the militants they claim were the targets.

    Though the Rehmans reportedly have not encountered problems obtaining their visas to enter the U.S., Akbar has allegedly not been able to gain admittance in the country and hasn’t been able to since 2010.

    According to a report in the Guardian, a spokeswoman from the State Department told the news outlet in September 2013 that “two agents” were reviewing questions about Akbar’s visa, but Akbar claims the CIA is intentionally blocking his visit and that he has been “blacklisted” for bringing “litigation, civil litigation, and civil charges against CIA officials in Pakistan for their role in drone strikes.”

    Akbar says his trouble obtaining admittance into the United States began after he launched an investigation into the CIA’s drone program.

    Mint Press News contacted the CIA and asked the organization for comment on Akbar’s denied visa requests, but spokesman Ned Price said our query would be “best addressed by the Department of State” because they are in charge of issuing visas to foreign visitors. MPN then asked whether or not the CIA would comment on the issue because they were directly named by Akbar, but the agency declined to do so.

    The State Department has yet to respond to MPN’s request for comment.

    In an effort to increase awareness about the drone warfare program, former Rep. Paul told MPN that he had created a petition to encourage Secretary of State John Kerry to allow Akbar into the U.S., at least for the briefing.

    Paul said the “vicious” drone warfare program is illegal under both U.S. and international law. “Too many innocent people are dying,” he said.

    Though Paul doesn’t expect to hear word from Kerry or any other official from the Obama administration about the petition, he says it’s up to the American public to call attention to drone warfare because regardless of political party, lawmakers won’t.

    “Unfortunately, leadership in both parties endorse foreign policy drone warfare,” Paul said. “In spite of all the fighting,” he explained that leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties come together on foreign policy issues.

    Is the U.S. retaliating against Akbar?

    Though many are pointing fingers at the State Department for Akbar’s failure thus far to enter the country, in 2011 Akbar wrote a piece for the Guardian explaining that he believed the U.S. government was intentionally preventing him from traveling to the U.S. because he sued the CIA “for killing innocent civilians through drone strikes in my home country”:

    “Although I have previously held consultancies with [the U.S. Agency for International Development], and helped the FBI investigate a terrorism case involving a Pakistani diplomat, my relationship with the U.S. government changed dramatically in 2010, when I decided to take on the case of Karim Khan. Karim Khan was away from home on New Year’s Eve 2009 when two missiles fired from what we believe was a CIA-operated drone struck his family home in North Waziristan and killed his son, aged 18, and his brother, aged 35.”

    Akbar wrote that Khan could have worked to avenge the deaths of his son and brother — who he said were innocent victims — by joining the Taliban, but instead he “put his trust in the legal system.” He continued:

    “In November 2010, we initiated legal notices against the CIA and the US secretary of defence for their wrongful deaths. Since then, more than 35 families from Pakistan have come forward and joined us in our legal proceedings.

    “So, why would the U.S. government want to prevent me from discussing these cases at Columbia law school? Perhaps, it is because our legal challenge disrupts the narrative of ‘precision strikes’ against ‘high-value targets’ as an unqualified success against terrorism, at minimal cost to civilian life.”

    He went on to say that as his clients “seek investigation, judgement and redress for any wrong done, my clients’ impulses are a testament to how dearly people the world over — and not just in the west — value the principle of due process and the right to plead a cause.

    “Instead of preventing me from speaking with American colleagues about these legal cases, the U.S. government should support our attempt at justice within the law – even if it disagrees with our view of the facts. Let us debate and sometimes disagree; after all, that is how American justice is supposed to be done.”

    According to a report in the New Yorker, this is the third time Akbar has battled with U.S. authorities to obtain a visa. In April 2012, Akbar reportedly was not allowed to speak at a human rights conference in Washington, D.C. because of a delay processing his application. He was, however, eventually granted entry.

    This most recent time, Akbar said he knew something fishy was happening based on how his interview with U.S. officials began. “Normally when you go to the embassy, there are different counters in the big hall and everyone is interviewed at the counter, and this is where the victims – Rafiq and his children – were interviewed, but I was interviewed in a separate room,” Akbar said.

    He added that the woman who interviewed him told him he had been “flagged.”

    “She said they know me very well, so they don’t need really to clarify anything. They were aware that I was coming. They were aware of the invitation from the congressman,” Akbar said, claiming that the woman told him her job was to identify immigration or flight risks. Akbar says he is neither, but because of his “history” with the U.S., he claims his “visa has been flagged.”

    “I keep checking and they still tell me that it’s in administrative process,” Akbar said. “They say they cannot tell me how long it will take.”

    According to a State Department information sheet, the total wait time for a nonimmigrant visa in Islamabad, including the appointment interview and processing of the visa, should not exceed 13 days. Akbar began the process one month ago.

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    • Carol Anne Grayson

      I understand so well… as you know I was blocked from Pakistan and my colleague Saleem Shahzad tortured to death… we were planning a film on drones and a conference. I was threatened not to speak on drones, next week Saleem was kidnapped, found dead!