Lawyers with the British human rights organization Reprieve filed a legal complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) Wednesday documenting the experiences of Pakistani anti-drone activist Kareem Khan and other drone strike victims and accusing NATO allied states of war crimes by helping to facilitate the United States’ covert drone program in Pakistan.
Khan was abducted from his home in Rawalpindi this month by a group of about 20 armed men, but was later released after a massive outcry from anti-drone activists internationally. Khan said he was blindfolded and handcuffed for eight days in a basement, where he was tortured with physical beatings and mental abuse in what he and his lawyers said was an attempt to silence him for speaking out about the reality of drone strikes.
Khan said one of his abductors hung him upside down and hit the soles of his feet continuously with a leather strap to avoid leaving a mark. Khan has been an outspoken critic of the US covert drone program since his 18-year-old son and his brother were killed in a US drone strike in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan in December 2009.
Attorney’s from Reprieve worked with UK-based barristers and human rights solicitors at The Hague to file a legal complaint based on recent revelations that NATO member-states, including the UK, Germany and Australia, support US drone strikes by sharing intelligence. The complaint argues that since these countries are signatories to the Rome Statute, they are under the jurisdiction of the World Court and can be investigated for war crimes. The United States is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, however.
"When my son died, I first went to local courts. They have not been able to help. I am now going to the international court in the hopes that they can give me answers. I would go anywhere for my son. I loved him and miss him dearly. He deserves justice," Khan said. He spoke to Truthout both over the phone and through email messages, in which his lawyers translated.
The prosecutor’s office at the ICC, in a November 2013 report on the prosecutor’s preliminary examination into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, found that "war crimes and crimes against humanity were and, continue to be, committed in Afghanistan." Prosecutors indicated they would examine whether the Afghan government has taken sufficient measures to investigate and prosecute the crimes before moving to open a formal investigation. Afghanistan signed the Rome Statute in 2003.
According to Jennifer Gibson, a staff attorney at Reprieve, the complaint argues that since the drones are being flown out from bases in Afghanistan, the ICC has territorial jurisdiction over the drone strikes occurring in Pakistan and that the prosecutor’s office should include the drone strikes in their considerations about whether to open a formal investigation in Afghanistan.
"For Mr. Khan and the others listed in the complaint, this is possibly one of the last forums for their voices to be heard. They don’t have access to the courts in the US, the Pakistani government hasn’t enforced Peshawar high court decision, the British have just kicked out our UK case in the high court over location intelligence sharing, and our argument here is the victims deserve a forum to be heard," Gibson told Truthout.
Khan and his lawyers, including Shahzad Akbar, who is a fellow at Reprieve and represents more than 156 drone strike victims, are also meeting with European parliamentarians this week to tell the stories of drone strike victims and survivors. British parliamentarians have become increasingly concerned about the use of drones since it was revealed that intelligence officials at their Government Communications Headquarters have been providing targeting information to their US counterparts.
Another Pakistani family whom Akbar is representing testified before the US Congress about the drone strike that killed Rafiq ur-Rehman's mother while she was working in a field just outside his village of Tappi, in the tribal region of North Waziristan, in October 2012. It was the first testimonial from drone-strike survivors before Congress. Akbar, who was supposed to serve as the family’s translator and guide, accused the State Department of delaying his visa to prevent the family from telling their stories to Congressional representatives.
"I have been overwhelmed by my interactions with European parliamentarians and ministry officials. Not only did they work to get me released last week from detention, but this week they have intently listened to me share my experiences with drone strikes. I am hopeful that after hearing about what happened to my family, Europeans will begin to question the actions of their ally and demand the US drones be stopped," Khan said.
Khan has fought an ongoing legal battle with the Pakistani government and United States. In a 2010 lawsuit he filed in the Islamabad High Court, he identified the then-CIA station chief in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, for his alleged role in the drone attack.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, President Obama has launched more than 390 covert drone strikes in his first five years in office, killing more than 2,400 people, with at least 273 of them reported as civilians. The bureau has also reported that the CIA has not carried out any strikes in Pakistan so far in 2014 - the longest hiatus recorded in Obama’s presidency.
But if the White House is stepping back from continuous strikes for now, those who have been personally affected by the covert drone program are stepping up to tell their stories.
"A wrong has been done to me. The only option I have is to seek justice within the bounds of law. Last week, many people raised their voices to help me. Without them, I would not be here today. They showed that accountability is important. I hope by speaking, I can help make the US accountable for what drones have done to my family and others in my community," Khan told Truthout.
He also said that despite his abduction, he does not fear returning to Pakistan as his trip to Europe wraps up.
"Pakistan is my country. I love it and will return to it, so I can continue to speak out against drone strikes. The US and others need to know who the strikes are killing. They are killing people like my son - civilians," he said.