A British-trained Pakistani lawyer announced today that he intends to use courts in Pakistan, the UK and the United States to try and halt drone strikes in the country’s tribal areas.
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistan-based lawyer who studied in Britain, has already filed a case against the CIA in Islamabad which resulted in the American intelligence services having to evacuate their station chief after he was named in the suit.
The case was brought on behalf of Karim Khan, a journalist in Waziristan whose son and brother were killed in a drone strike in January 2009, and has paved the way for scores more families to make similar claims. Farooq Law Associates, the law firm behind the suits, said yesterday that a further 24 civilians who have either been injured or lost family members in drone strikes have now been identified to bring further cases.
“More and more families who were victims of drone strikes are coming forward looking for justice,” he said. “We want to give human identities, names and life stories to those people who until recently were just numbers.”
Mr Akbar was speaking in London to announce the start of a joint legal campaign with Reprieve, the US-UK anti-death penalty charity that launched a series of successful legal actions in the States on behalf of inmates at Guantanamo.
The US carries out unmanned drone strikes on what they describe as “high value targets” in Pakistan and more recently Yemen, but the CIA has never officially acknowledged the programme. The vehicles are flown remotely by operators in California and are thought to have killed a number of key figures within al-Qa’ida and Taliban-linked groups.
In the American press anonymous officials have defended the strikes as a vital tool in the fight against Islamist militants but critics say the bombings cause unacceptable civilian losses and generate moral outrage which hands militants a valuable propaganda victory.
The number of drone strikes carried out in 2010 doubled from the previous year with similar strike figures emerging so far this year. Some human rights groups estimate that as many as 2,500 civilians have been killed alongside 33 “high value targets” that security sources in the US have indicated were also killed in Pakistan over the past nine years.
So far legal action against the CIA has only been brought in Pakistan where it faces long odds of success. But Mr Akbar’s case did result in the US having to withdraw Jonathan Banks, the then Islamabad station chief, after he was named alongside Defence Secretary Robert Gates and CIA chief Leon Panetta as defendants.
The naming caused outrage among US officials who suspected that Pakistan’s own intelligence service, the ISI, might have had a hand in outing Mr Banks possibly in retaliation for a civil lawsuit filed in Brooklyn last year implicating the ISI chief in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008
Asked by The Independent whether the ISI had given him the name, Mr Akbar said: “Actually it was a journalist who gave me the name but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that name got me the audience to take my litigation case to a larger audience. We found it in a week.”
Clive Stafford-Smith, the director of Reprieve, said he hoped to use his work on Guantanamo as a blueprint for campaigning against drone strikes by bringing legal challenges in both Britain and the States.
“There are endless different ways that the courts in Britain, America and the international courts can be involved in this,” he said, adding that any evidence of British intelligence being used to carry out air strikes in which civilians were killed could open up court cases here.
“We can get at them through compensation cases; we can get them through war crime cases; we can file homicide cases,” he added. “Whether [these people] ever get prosecuted in a criminal case in Pakistan or not, they will begin to feel the breath of law enforcement on the back of their necks and they’ll begin to take a little more seriously this question of whether you go round killing people by pushing button in California.”