Pakistani court declares US drone strikes in the country's tribal belt illegal

Judges say the strikes must be declared a war crime as they kill innocent people

Islamabad

A Pakistani court has declared that US drone strikes in the country's tribal belt are illegal and has directed the government to move a resolution against the attacks in the United Nations.

In what activists said was an historic decision, the Peshawar High Court issued the verdict against the strikes by CIA-operated spy planes in response to four petitions that contended the attacks killed civilians and caused “collateral damage”.

Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who headed a two-judge bench that heard the petitions, ruled the drone strikes were illegal, inhumane and a violation of the UN charter on human rights. The court said the strikes must be declared a war crime as they killed innocent people.

“The government of Pakistan must ensure that no drone strike takes place in the future,” the court said, according to the Press Trust of India. It asked Pakistan's foreign ministry to table a resolution against the American attacks in the UN.

“If the US vetoes the resolution, then the country should think about breaking diplomatic ties with the US,” the judgment said.

US officials have said the drones target al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters in Pakistan's tribal regions who are blamed for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and say the operations are done with the complicity of Pakistan's military. Activists say hundreds of civilians are killed as “collateral damage” and that there is no transparency about the operation of the drones.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party is considered frontrunner in this Saturday's election, this week vowed that he would not tolerate drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

“Drone attacks are against the national sovereignty and a challenge for the country's autonomy and independence,” he said.

The case was filed last year by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal charity based in Islamabad, on behalf of the families of victims killed in a 17 March 2011 strike on a tribal jirga.

The jirga, a traditional community dispute resolution mechanism, had been called to settle a chromite mining dispute in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. This strike killed more than 50 tribal elders, including a number of government officials. There was strong condemnation of this attack by all quarters in Pakistan including the federal government and Pakistan military.

Shahzad Akbar, lawyer for victims in the case, said: “This is a landmark judgment. Drone victims in Waziristan will now get some justice after a long wait. This judgment will also prove to be a test for the new government: if drone strikes continue and the government fails to act, it will run the risk of contempt of court.”?

Clive Stafford Smith of the London-based group Reprieve, which has supported the case, said: “Today's momentous decision by the Peshawar High Court shines the first rays of accountability onto the CIA's secret drone war.”

He added: “For the innocent people killed by U.S. drone strikes, it marks the first time they have been officially acknowledged for who they truly are - civilian victims of American war crimes.”

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