What others say: Obama's forgotten victims

By Mirza Shahzad Akbar

The New York Times

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 12:25 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 file photo, a Yemeni protestor shouts slogans denouncing air strikes by U.S. drones during a demonstration in front of the residence of Yemen's president Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen. A public backlash is starting to grow in Yemen over civilians killed by American drones as the U.S. dramatically steps up its strikes against al-Qaida?s branch here the past year. Relatives of those killed say the missile blasts hitting their towns only turn Yemenis against the U.S. campaign to crush militants. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

Associated Press

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When Barack Obama ran for president of the United States in 2008, his message of hope and change gave us, the citizens of lesser republics, hope that he would close Guantanamo and shut down programs where extrajudicial killing or bribing foreign heads of state with American taxpayer dollars had become standard practice.

Instead, a few days after his inaugural address, a CIA-operated drone dropped Hellfire missiles on Fahim Qureishi’s home in North Waziristan, killing seven of his family members and severely injuring Fahim. He was just 13 years old and left with only one eye, and shrapnel in his stomach.

There was no militant present. A recent book revealed that Obama was informed about the erroneous target but still did not offer any form of redress, because in 2009, the United States did not acknowledge the existence of its own drone program in Pakistan.

Sadaullah Wazir was another victim of hope and change. His house in North Waziristan was targeted onSept. 7, 2009. The strike killed four members of his family. Sadaullah was 14 years old when it happened. A few days after the attack, he woke up in a Peshawar hospital to the news that both of his legs had to be amputated and he would never be able to walk again. He died last year, without receiving justice or even an apology. Once again, no militant was present or killed.

Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.

But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.

Nabila doesn’t know who Obama is, or where the Hellfire missile that killed her grandmother came from. As she grows older, she will learn about the idea of justice. But how will she be able to grasp it if she herself has been denied this basic right?

The civilian victims of drone strikes have not been let down just by Obama. Their own government is equally culpable; Pakistan has been complicit in several strikes.

I have brought litigation on behalf of more than 100 civilian victims and their families before the provincial High Court in Peshawar and lower courts in Islamabad, the capital, to demand that the Pakistani government exercise its duty to protect the lives of its citizens.

A growing number of civilian casualties has raised the question of the efficacy of drone strikes in killing militants. Clearly Fahim, Sadaullah and Nabila were not menaces to America who had to be attacked in a brutal and lawless manner. According to the revelations in a recent McClatchy News Service article, the CIA. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.

The burden of accountability is not exclusively on the American side. It is widely believed that the Pakistani government not only gives tacit consent for such strikes but also provides ground intelligence to the United States.

In response to our lawsuit, the Pakistani government has claimed that there is no written, verbal or tacit consent for such strikes nor any intelligence sharing. It cites two joint parliamentary resolutions declaring drone strikes a counterproductive violation of sovereignty and a request to stop such strikes. But Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, painted a different picture in a CNN interview in April, admitting that he consented to a number of strikes during his tenure as president.

In a recent landmark ruling on one of our drone lawsuits, the Peshawar High Court categorically ordered Pakistan’s government to end its duplicity and defend its citizens’ right to life by demanding that America halt drone strikes and compensate civilian victims.

People in Waziristan do not expect much of their government, but they at the very least deserve justice and a right to live.

If Obama will not end the strikes that are killing innocent Pakistanis, it is the duty of our government to stop America’s extrajudicial campaign of killing on our territory, just as it is the Pakistani government’s duty to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the country – but within the bounds of law and adhering to the principles of due process.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer and former special prosecutor for Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau, is co-founder and legal director of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal aid organization.

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