Sara Farid for Al Jazeera America

Shahzad Akbar fights for Pakistan's drone victims

For years, Akbar has been the only lawyer in Pakistan willing to defend victims of clandestine US drone strikes

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At 6 feet tall, human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar is a big man who cuts an imposing figure in the courtroom. Slightly balding with a thin goatee and black-framed glasses, his face curls into a canny grin when he dispenses wisecracks. At his office, he reads the news by hunting for motives behind the stories, a national pastime in Pakistan. In a country where people are used to the covert agreements and double dealings of those in power, maintaining an air of skepticism is the only way to find sure footing.

A general attitude of distrust has contributed to the confusion and rumors around U.S. drone bombings in Pakistan, a contentious issue about which everyone has an opinion and for which no one has the entire story. Because the attacks are wrapped in secrecy, narratives proliferate about the motives of the governments involved, the aims of the clandestine intelligence agencies that conduct the bombings, the true identities of those killed and whether participants are friends, foes or allies secretly in cahoots with one another. For the past five years, Akbar has been at the center of a legal battle over these attacks. Though not a household name, he is a controversial figure among the political class that shapes public conversation and policy in Pakistan. Once a consultant for the U.S. Agency of International Development and a diplomatic visa holder, he became persona non grata in the eyes of the U.S. government and found himself unable to travel to the United States after he began filing domestic and international lawsuits on behalf of people affected by drone attacks.

Since 2004, the vast majority of U.S. drone bombings in Pakistan have taken place in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Though part of Pakistan, the FATA are still administered under laws drafted by British colonialists. As a result, there are no courts, no police and no constitutional protections. Amnesty International has called the FATA a “human-rights-free zone,” and things have gotten worse since military operations began in the region last year. The two FATA regions most heavily bombed by drones, North and South Waziristan, have been under strict lockdown for years, making it impossible for journalists to enter and difficult for residents to leave.

The U.S. contends that it’s going after Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but since the CIA-led drone program is officially secret, little is known about how drone attacks are conducted or targets are chosen. According to a 2014 study by Forensic Architecture, a research project in London, and the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent initiative, this secrecy has contributed to lax bombing practices. To date, the bureau has found that 423 to 965 civilians have been killed in the bombings — 170 to 207 of them children. Most of the victims remain unnamed and unidentified.

Pakistani officials have publicly decried the attacks, but leaked U.S. Embassy cables show that the government has been compliant. It provided the U.S. with use of a military base from late 2001 until 2011 that is known to have been used for drones. While the Pakistani public generally disapproves of drone bombardment, it is a divisive issue. Some urban liberals share the American view that killing militants takes precedence over other concerns, and some Islamic political parties protest the attacks, in part, critics say, to deflect attention from their own dubious alliances.

In this debate, Akbar is a lightning rod. To his clients, he is the only lawyer willing to go to court for them. To his detractors, his work is consonant with the agenda of Pakistan’s security establishment. This is because some critics see his work as a means of diverting focus from the fight against the Pakistani Taliban and as a platform for the Pakistani government to publicly oppose drone attacks while secretly supporting them. Also, as he tries to force the CIA drone program into the light, some accuse him of failing to hold the Pakistani government accountable. The debate over his work reflects not only the clandestine nature of the program but also the complicated political interests that surround it. In demanding something solid — redress, reparations — he is challenging the artifice that makes the drone war possible. 

Leading a double life

Though Akbar now moves in political circles, he had a sheltered upbringing in a family without elite connections. Growing up in Gujar Khan, a village two hours from Islamabad, he spent most of his time with his father, a farmer and businessman who often took him along on his business trips to court. Akbar was captivated. “I loved the way the lawyer would stand there and speak and everyone would listen,” he recalled. He went to college in Lahore and law school in the U.K., where he met his future wife, a politics student from Germany. Because of his upbringing, he likes to say that he leads a double life. “One is the Islamabad education, being educated abroad, having a foreign wife and all of that,” he said. “Then I have a village background, conservative — not religious but conservative.”

His career reflects an interest in holding people and organizations accountable for their actions. After four years as a special prosecutor at the National Accountability Bureau, a federal anti-corruption organization, he left his position in 2008. He continued to teach at International Islamic University, a research school in Islamabad where he has worked since 2004, and joined a law practice. There he took on a consulting role in USAID’s rule of law project, assessing accountability and court efficiency in the northern Pakistani district of Swat.

Akbar’s entrée into drone litigation came in 2010 via Christopher Rogers, an American human rights lawyer. They met when Rogers’ roommates, two French journalists, were imprisoned in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan. At the time, Rogers was working for the nonprofit Center for Civilians in Conflict and conducting an investigation into how civilians were affected by fighting in Pakistan. Over the course of his research, he identified 30 civilian deaths that resulted from drone attacks in the FATA. Motivated by this discovery, he began to consider possibilities for strategic litigation against the CIA.

As Rogers and Akbar worked together on the journalists’ release, they cemented a friendship and began to talk seriously about pursuing legal recourse on behalf of drone victims. Though Rogers ultimately chose not to become personally involved with these efforts, he supported Akbar when he decided to pursue them.

Khan and Akbar filed two lawsuits in Pakistani courts: The first demanded $500 million in reparations from the U.S. government. The second alleged that the CIA station chief in Pakistan and the CIA’s legal counsel were guilty of murdering drone victim Kareem Khan’s family.

The first step for Akbar was finding a client. He began to inquire about people who were affected by drone strikes, and colleagues told him about an older student in Islamabad, Kareem Khan. A drone bombed Khan’s home in North Waziristan on New Year’s Eve 2009, killing his teenage son, his brother and a houseguest. Media reports never mentioned Khan’s family and guest, but they did report that the attacks killed a Taliban leader, Haji Omar. Khan denies the claim that Omar was in his home.

Khan and Akbar filed two lawsuits in Pakistani courts. The first was a civil case demanding $500 million in reparations from the U.S. government. The second was a criminal complaint alleging that the CIA station chief in Pakistan and the CIA’s legal counsel, John Rizzo, were guilty of murdering Khan’s family. The first case was filed in late November 2010. For the second case, Akbar felt he had to do something “unthinkable” in order to draw attention to the issue. So he did. The pair outed the CIA station chief in Islamabad — whose name is usually secret — during a widely publicized two-day demonstration.

Akbar had banners made emblazoned with Jonathan Bank’s name and the demand that CIA operatives be brought to court. These banners were unfurled on Dec. 9, 2010, when people from the tribal areas held their first protest against drones by the parliament in Islamabad. That was nearly a year after the attack on Khan’s home and six years after drone strikes began in Pakistan.

Bank’s outing roused the ire of the U.S. Embassy and of political officials, who began to accuse Akbar of having ties to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani intelligence service. Rogers recalled being at a meeting at the U.S. Embassy the morning of the rally. “I was about to go from the meeting to the protest, and I asked the political officer, ‘What do you think about this case that was filed and all of this hubbub?’ And she said, ‘Oh, the ISI guy.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’” remembered Rogers. “That was the first time I’d heard that line from a U.S. Embassy official.”

Three days later, Khan and Akbar submitted documents to the Islamabad police requesting the registration of a first information report, a claim that obliges police to investigate a particular incident. This is supposed to be a routine procedure, but if a politically well-connected person is involved, filing a freedom of information request can seem impossible. Khan and Akbar’s paperwork asked police to investigate Bank and Rizzo for murder and accessory to murder. 

‘Whispers and winks’

Cyril Almeida, a columnist and an assistant editor at Dawn, the country’s leading English-language newspaper, recalled that the revelation of Bank’s name stirred controversy because “an average civilian in Pakistan would not know who is the CIA station chief.” It made Akbar seem like a player in a larger geopolitical game. Yet Akbar maintained that he discovered Bank’s identity through a journalistic source, not an ISI operative. “There was no [official] confirmation that this was his name,” he said. There is reason to believe that Bank’s identity had not been not entirely secret: Christopher Woods, a journalist who has investigated drone attacks, said that Bank was in Pakistan under his own name for over a year, “with his identity known not only to top ranking Pakistani military, intelligence and administration figures but also to senior diplomats of other nations.”

There has never been any verifiable evidence linking Akbar to ISI or ISI to the Bank leak. Neverthless, rumors persisted and were exacerbated by some of the attendees at Akbar’s anti-drone rally. Among them were Abdul Aziz, a cleric from Lal Masjid, an Islamabad mosque widely believed to have links with insurgents, and Hamid Gul, a former ISI director-general notorious for his role in the rise of the Taliban. “I never invited them,” Akbar said. “I just invited friends from my own circle, and then others showed up.” When Aziz asked Akbar to issue a joint comment at the protest, Akbar refused.

This is all sort of a distraction, a way to undermine Shahzad and, by proxy, the people he represents and the claims he’s trying to bring forward.

Christopher Rogers, human rights lawyer

Without taking a stance on whether Akbar was involved with ISI, Almeida said the fallout from the incident unnecessarily wrapped the issue of drone civilian deaths into a diplomatic scandal. By 2011, amid worsening U.S.-Pakistan relations due to the Osama bin Laden raid, the murder of two Pakistanis in broad daylight by a CIA contractor and a drone bombing that killed an estimated 42 people, most if not all of them civilians, U.S. officials doubled down on the claim that critics of drone bombings were either ISI agents or Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Akbar’s supporters say that allegations of ISI ties reflect an attempt to discredit him and the bombing survivors. “It just drives me crazy,” Rogers said. “This is all sort of a distraction, a way to undermine Shahzad and, by proxy, the people he represents and the claims he’s trying to bring forward.” What frustrates him most is that allegations were never made on the record. “That’s not how it’s done. It’s done by whispers and winks.”

Within the country, Almeida claims, such allegations against activists are not out of the ordinary. “It’s an old game in Pakistan. It’s a pretty standard game.”

The result was that few local rights groups were willing to publicly back Akbar’s cases or his anti-drone campaign. For political clout, he enlisted Imran Khan, a famous cricketer turned politician who founded a political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), with a platform of fighting corruption and drones. In October 2012 the two teamed up with American activists from the group Code Pink to organize an anti-drone motorcade from Islamabad to South Waziristan in the southern tip of the FATA.

As the demonstration prepared to get underway, the Pakistani Taliban issued bomb threats, and the English-speaking classes published biting columns accusing Khan and Akbar of diverting attention from fighting the Taliban. Several thousand people turned up for the protest, from members of Tehreek-e-Insaf to residents of regions affected by drone strikes. Yet the rally never made it to South Waziristan: Security officials blocked the border and refused to let cars pass. 

Legal battles home and abroad

Akbar with colleague Ayesha Khan at the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a Pakistan-based charity he established in 2010.
Sara Farid for Al Jazeera America

The drone-related lawsuits that Akbar has filed in Pakistan have gone further than his comparable attempts abroad. There have yet to be proceedings on a class action complaint he filed at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012 on behalf of 18 people affected by drones, and a lawsuit filed in British court in 2012 alleging U.K. complicity in drone attacks was rejected in 2014. Though he won’t go into detail, he said he is preparing to file suit in the U.S.

In Pakistan, by contrast, the Peshawar High Court returned a favorable judgment for Akbar in 2013 for a lawsuit on behalf of Noor Khan, the son of a man from North Waziristan who died in a U.S. drone attack two years earlier. In a startling ruling, Judge Dost Muhammad Khan declared the bombardment illegal and directed the Pakistani government to register a complaint at the U.N. against drone attacks. With the government dragging its heels about complying, Akbar intends to pursue enforcement.

According to Akbar, his frequent unwillingness to go after the Pakistani government directly is a matter of strategy, not conviction. Last year he filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court asking that NATO allies be investigated for war crimes for their role in the U.S. drone program. Asked whether he thought Pakistan was complicit, he responded bluntly, “Yes, of course. It’s not that I think — I know they’re complicit.” But he believes that filing a lawsuit against the Pakistani government directly is likely to endanger his clients. “What’s the benefit? It will create an excuse for the agencies to harass my victims.” There is evidence to support this concern. In February 2014, Kareem Khan was picked up by unidentified men, some of them wearing police uniforms, his family claims. The men allegedly beat and interrogated him for 10 days before releasing him.

In 2011 Akbar set up a legal charity, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, and after years of focusing exclusively on drone cases, it now works on a range of human rights abuses, including torture, detention and the death penalty. While drones have landed him in hot water with liberal critics, his work against the death penalty — a contentious topic among most Pakistanis but seen as a worthy cause within human rights circles — has earned him their respect and has muted chatter about connections to ISI.

He is reluctant to discuss the personal costs of his work or to disclose revealing details about his life. His office was shot at and burgled several years ago, and the culprits are still at large. A few weeks ago, strange men visited his family’s home and asked for him. “It’s something you make a mental note of,” said his wife. “I told Shahzad about it, so he should be aware of it.” The couple now has a 9-month-old daughter, and Akbar spends his off-hours hunting Urdu bookstores for stories and novels he read as a child so he can pass them on to her. 

Akbar is reluctant to discuss the personal costs of his work or to disclose revealing details about his life. His office was shot at and burgled several years ago, and the culprits are still at large. A few weeks ago, strange men visited his family’s home and asked for him.

Success and setbacks

In July he returned to court for a hearing in the case of Kareem Khan. That morning, Akbar was quiet, but the judge was livid. Three months earlier, Akbar managed to force the Islamabad police to file a freedom of information request alleging that the CIA station chief might be an accessory to murder. Nearly five years had passed since the original request, and the win was the third time that the Islamabad High Court directed the Islamabad police to file the paperwork. This time, as in previous instances, the police immediately tried to transfer the case to the governmental body of the FATA.

Having repeatedly directed the police to follow court orders, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui was visibly frustrated. “You’re standing here like blind pigeons!” he boomed at the defendants. “Why are you so afraid that you can’t write two words on behalf of the law? And the excuses you present! Before, your legs were shaking simply because you had to register [a freedom of information request]. Now you’re worried about losing your jobs — all because a CIA person’s name is involved.”

The case was ultimately adjourned until September.

While political interests have turned Akbar’s work into an uphill struggle, there is some hope that the courts will yield results and force more information to light. “This whole thing is about accountability,” he said, saying that the police should have been the ones to suggest CIA involvement in drone bombings. “People ought to be prosecuted for their crimes.” Akbar has hope that Khan’s case will change the legal landscape. Should Pakistan seek redress against the U.S., it will help set a precedent for CIA drone bombardment “as an act of murder.” And that, he said, “will be a moral and legal victory for victims.”

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