Pakistan: drone victims seek arrest of CIA officials

A Pakistan-based NGO, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), led by Islamabad lawyer Shahzad Akbar, has filed a legal case in that country’s courts on behalf of a Pakistani citizen, journalist Karim Khan, whose 18-year-old son and brother were killed in a drone attack on New Year’s Eve in 2009. The criminal complaint for wrongful death has resulted in Pakistan CIA station chief Jonathan Banks fleeing the country, apparently to avoid prosecution after his anonymity was compromised. The FFR, along with the UK-based legal advocacy group Reprieve, is also seeking an international warrant for former CIA legal director John Rizzo on behalf of families of civilians killed in drone strikes. Rizzo was the individual responsible for approving targets in drone strikes in Pakistan..

A Dec. 15 Wall Street Journal report on the drone program revealed that the majority of attacks are “signature strikes,” defined as those in which the target is a large group of people “believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups,” but whose identities are not actually known. The CIA’s term for people killed when they appear on their computer monitors is “bugsplat.” Reprieve has taken this as the name of their legal effort to stop the drone campaign—Project Bugsplat. (AlJazeera, Dec. 12)

The FFR has also broached seeking the arrest of the US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter. Akbar has written Munter a letter, reading: “I am considering initiating legal proceedings against you as a co-conspirator in Tariq and Waheed’s murder – for murder is the only word that can properly be applied to the act committed by CIA agents and their accomplices,. However, I recognise that the US State Department has, at some level, been trying to rein in the CIA in its illegal war in the Pakistan border region, and I therefore want to be completely fair, and give you an opportunity to disavow what happened, and therefore potentially exclude yourself from any action that I might bring.” (Belfast Telegraph, Dec. 8)

The CIA is in the process of vacating the Shamsi airbase near Quetta (Balochistan province) following an order by Islamabad last month. Pakistan’s deadline for the CIA to leave has just expired. But the US-operated airbase across just the border in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, could also be used to launch drone strikes on Pakistani territory. Additionally, there has been little word on the Shahbaz base at Jacobabad (Sindh province), where the US is also believed to have the capability to launch drones.

During deadly heavy flooding in autumn 2010, Pakistan’s health minister Khusnood Lashari protested publicly that the government could not use Jacobabad’s airfield to deliver food aid because of the CA presence there. “Health relief operations are not possible in the flood-affected areas of Jacobabad because the airbase is with the United States,” he told parliament. The US denied at the time that it controlled Shahbaz.

Probably in response to the political fallout in Pakistan, the drone war does appear to have slowed recently. According to the drone-watchers at the New America Foundation, there hasn’t been a strike in Pakistan since Nov. 15. (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Dec. 15; Wired, Dec. 12)

The White House has meanwhile sent a formal diplomatic request asking Iran to return a radar-evading surveillance drone aircraft that crashed on an apparent CIA spying mission earlier this month. “We have asked for it back,” President Obama said Dec. 12. “We’ll see how the Iranians respond.” His comments marked the first public confirmation that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone now in Iranian hands is a US aircraft. Iran claims it shot down the drone, but US officials say it malfunctioned. (LAT, Dec. 12)

It remains uncertain what the drone’s mission was. Iranian officials say the drone came down in the country’s east, hundreds of miles from the cluster of nuclear sites in central and northwestern Iran. Some said it came down close to the city of Kashmar in Khorasan province; others that it was recovered in the Tabas desert to the southwest. (CNN’s Security Clearance blog, Dec. 15)

On Dec. 13, it was revealed that a US Air Force-operated MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed in the Seychelles—apparently due to engine failure, although the incident is under investigation. The island nation has hosted a US drone base since September 2009, primarily to track pirates in regional waters, but also to conduct surveillance missions over Somalia. (WP, Dec. 13)

See our last post on the drone wars.

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  1. US resumes Pakistan drone strikes
    An US drone strike killed four presumed militants near Miranshah in North Waziristan Jan. 10—the first such attack since errant US airstrikes in November killed two dozen Pakistani troops. Three of the dead were Arab fighters, said anonymous Pakistani officials. The late-night missile attack broke the longest pause between strikes since 2009. (AP, Reuters, Jan. 11