Meet the One-Man Legal Machine Pursuing Justice For Pakistani Drone Strike Victims

Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar is taking on the most powerful intelligence agency in the world.

Pakistani drone strike victim lawyer Shahzad Akbar. Photo courtesy of Chris Woods/Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Photo Credit: Chris Woods/Bureau of Investigative Journalism

A phone call informed him that his home had been struck by a drone.

On New Year’s Eve in 2009, Karim Khan rushed back to discover that his 18-year-old son and 35-year-old brother, a primary school teacher, had been killed in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

House hit. Family dead.

There is little that Pakistan’s drone strike victims can do when they return home to the ashes of life-past, except maybe to ask why. Such trivialities remain unanswered by the US government. No justification offered. No explanation needed. No apologies given.

Devastated, Khan, a public school teacher, stood at a crossroads: he could join the ranks of a militant outfit to avenge his family or he could try to go on with life as if nothing happened.

Khan chose neither.

He walked down a third road, one that had never been traveled, which led him to Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar. In the pursuit of justice, Karim Khan sought legal representation, and Akbar promised to help. Akbar found his story “quite compelling” and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find him representation through human rights organizations.

“Nobody was interested in drones,” Akbar says. “They made excuses—‘oh you know it’s the tribal areas, and the courts don’t have jurisdiction there.’ That’s not true. Courts have jurisdiction if the issue concerns fundamental rights, and this issue concerns the right to life.”

Eventually, Akbar decided to represent Khan himself. He sued the Central Intelligence Agency, the outfit responsible for drone strikes in Pakistan, for $500 million—a decision that forever changed Akbar’s relationship with the United States government.

Now, Akbar can't get into the country to help his clients. As drone strike victims he represents travel to the U.S. to testify before Congress on October 29, they will be without their trusted lawyer. For the second time in two years, his visa application to enter has been held up by the U.S.

As a special prosecutor at the National Accountability Bureau in Pakistan, Akbar cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a couple of cases, and held a diplomatic visa to the US for two years. After resigning from his job, he worked as a short-term consultant for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Soon after, in 2010, he initiated drone litigation.

“Everything changed completely,” he recalls. American diplomat friends plainly expressed their disapproval; USAID contacts made it clear that he would no longer get any USAID work.

“My response was that I’m not expecting to get any USAID work!” he said, laughing.

Along with Khan and three other victims, Akbar filed criminal charges against Jonathan Banks, the CIA station chief in Pakistan who was responsible for giving the green light on the drone attacks. With his cover blown by the legal case, the CIA station chief was yanked out of the country within two days. Since Khan’s pioneering litigation, others have broken their silence and come forward to seek justice through legal action.

“In the beginning I wasn’t sure that this is something I would do for a long time. It was just about proving my point,” Akbar told AlterNet. But what started off as proving a point has now become Akbar’s legacy.

In 2011, Akbar created the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, an organization that provides legal aid to enforce fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution of Pakistan. Not only is Akbar the co-founder, legal director and a trustee of this foundation, he is also a legal fellow at Reprieve, a UK based organization that promotes the rule of law around the world. Akbar’s fight is a tough one, and Reprieve provides him with much needed “moral, financial and emotional support.”

Together with other lawyers and researchers in Waziristan, Akbar now represents 156 drone strike victims. While these cases have yet to be resolved, they have played an important role in bringing attention “to the issue of the illegality of drone strikes,” Akbar says.

The CIA has not been the only target of his litigation.

Last year, Akbar filed a case with the Peshawar High Court, asking the Pakistani government to clarify its role in the drone strikes. This particular case was brought by victims of a strike on March 17, 2011, killing more than 50 people. Many were tribal elders, gathered to resolve a dispute. According to Akbar, the objective of the case was “to ask the Pakistani government if they had given consent [to these strikes].” If such an agreement did not exist, then these strikes “are a clear violation of Pakistani law,” begging the question of why “the Pakistani government [did] not protect its right [to sovereignty],” Akbar states.

In a landmark decision responding to Akbar's claims earlier this year, the Peshawar High Court Chief Justice concluded that drone strikes constitute “war crimes” and were a violation of international and Pakistani law. A report released by Amnesty International in October 2013 echoes these conclusions in certain cases. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism figures cited in the report, hundreds of civilians, including 168-200 children, have been killed in the drone strikes that have taken place since 2004. Because of the obscurity of the drone program and the refusal of the US government to provide key information, the Amnesty report is unable to draw definitive conclusions in many cases.

While the complicity of the Pakistani government could not be proved in the Peshawar High Court case, Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan ordered the Pakistani state to take steps to end drone strikes and obtain compensation for victims.

“So far the Pakistani government has not done anything concrete. They say ‘we’ve gone to the UN,' but all they have done is to make a speech in the General Assembly. That’s not taking the matter to the UN,” said Akbar.

Akbar’s warm eyes, kind face and sense of humor hide the exhausting battles he fights and the obstacles he faces. From being an American friend to becoming one of the harshest critics of the CIA program, Akbar has had a fascinating and complex relationship with the US government. Akbar's work is the story of one man taking on the most powerful intelligence agency in the world.

In an attempt to silence the voices of drone strike survivors and their advocates, the United States has repeatedly delayed or denied a visa to the man who once was privileged with a two-year diplomatic visa.

Most recently, Akbar had planned to accompany his clients Rafiq-ur-Rehman and his two children, 9-year-old Nabila-ur-Rehman and 13-year-old Zubair-ur-Rehman, to Washington D.C where they will speak at a congressional briefing on October 29. Last October, Rafiq’s 67-year-old mother was killed in a strike that injured Nabila and Zubair. The Rehman family is featured in Robert Greenwald’s upcoming documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, premiering on October 30 in New York City. Greenwald (who sits on AlterNet's board) crossed paths with Rafiq and Akbar while travelling to Pakistan for research on Unmanned.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. State Department has not approved Akbar’s visa application. The lack of a visa for Akbar forced the congressional hearing to be rescheduled, since his clients are reluctant to travel without him. In his place, attorney Jennifer Gibson from Reprieve is accompanying the family.

“They are not giving me the visa, nor refusing it, because there is no valid excuse to refuse it,” Akbar says.

In his last visit to the US Embassy, Akbar was led to another room by the head of visa section. “They gave me the special treatment,” he joked.

“She was very nice, and told me very frankly that from her point of view she has no objection to the application. If it was up to her she would sign off straight away. But since I had a ’history’ she said she could not process the visa here, and was bound to send it for approval to DC.”

Akbar smiled and asked, “What history? I thought history was good.”

She made it clear to Akbar that it wasn’t the embassy or the State Department raising objections, it was the CIA, “who is very angry against the drone work I’m doing, and at the fact that I’m not going away. I’m continuing to do what I do, and I’m pushing the victims to go to the US, without me.”

As Pakistani drone strike survivors address Congress for the first time, Akbar will be watching from afar as the historic events in Washington D.C. unfold. He is much too used to his visa application dangling in bureaucratic limbo. Two years ago, he was invited to speak at a conference at Columbia University about the legal issues surrounding drones. The State Department held his application in administrative processing for 14 months, finally granting him a visa for 40 days.

The stories of Akbar’s clients challenge the narrative of precision strikes touted by the US, which claims these strikes have killed militants and saved lives. Karim Khan's and Rafiq-ur-Rehman’s stories are a rejection of the American narrative, a rejection of retributive violence, and a rejection of silent submission.

Khan’s case is still pending in Islamabad. With Jonathan Banks no longer in the country, “we are pushing warrants [for his arrest],” Akbar says.

Shahzad Akbar carries these stories on his broad shoulders, keeping them alive. These stories need to be told, now more than ever.

H. F. Bhojani is a Pakistani storyteller who weaves counter-narratives on war and love @bhojanio.