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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.”

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