Who Tried to Silence Drone Victim Kareem Khan?

Featured photo - Who Tried to Silence Drone Victim Kareem Khan?
Kareem Khan, (centre) speaks at a press conference with his lawyer in 2010. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

In the early morning hours of February 5, a group of armed men – some dressed in Pakistani police uniforms – appeared at Kareem Khan’s home, awoke him and his family at gunpoint, and took him away in an unmarked vehicle. Khan was hooded, shackled around the wrists and ankles, and driven for hours, eventually arriving at a building where he was thrown into a windowless holding cell. There he stayed for more than a week, during which he was subjected to sensory deprivation and physical abuse. Khan says he was repeatedly beaten on the soles of his feet and threatened with death by his captors. He was kept hooded and shackled for most of the day, and fed only dry bread and water.

“I thought I would never get out,” Khan later told his Pakistani lawyer, Shahzad Akbar. “…I thought I would become one more among thousands of ‘missing persons’ in Pakistan.”

Khan has no doubts about why he was targeted. He is the first person to attempt a legal challenge to the CIA drone program in Pakistan, after his son and brother were killed in a drone strike near his home in North Waziristan on December 31st 2009. His abduction and detention occurred just over a week before Khan was to travel with Akbar and Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer with the UK-based legal charity Reprieve, to speak with European parliamentarians about the CIA drone program. Among the topics of discussion were the extralegal nature of the program, as well as covert intelligence sharing by European spy agencies.

While in captivity, Khan was interrogated by men who refused to identify themselves, and who questioned him repeatedly about his plans to speak with the media and about the cases of others who had been killed by drones. As Khan described them to The Intercept, the questions posed to him were circular and repetitive, and appeared to be more about intimidation than intelligence gathering.

Since the start of the “War on Terror” it has been estimated by local human rights groups that as many as 8,000 Pakistani citizens have been “disappeared” by local intelligence agencies, often at the behest of their American counterparts. In the words of one former detainee in Islamabad, quoted in a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch, “It seemed to me that this place was controlled by the Americans. They were in charge.”

The widespread perception in Pakistan is that criticizing government collaboration with US intelligence agencies can lead to threats from local security forces. As a Pakistani lawyer representing the families of several missing persons put it: “You will not be jailed in America if you say you hate the United States…..But I, as a Pakistani, cannot criticize the policies of America or my own government while in Pakistan for fear of becoming a missing person.”

In Khan’s case, Gibson told The Intercept that while it was too early to speculate about who was behind the kidnapping, “the manner in which he was abducted and tortured clearly fits into a longstanding pattern of detention and abuse by Pakistani intelligence forces.”

After nine days of imprisonment Khan was hooded and removed from his cell. He was placed in a van blaring loud music and, after being driven around again for hours, released and ordered not to speak to the media or “cause any fuss.”

Khan’s flight for Europe was due to leave the following day. His lawyers gently encouraged him to stay home and recover, but Khan rejected the advice. “No,” he said. “I’ll still go.”

Indeed, he managed to maintain his itinerary, meeting with EU lawmakers and telling the human story behind the casualty figures of drone strikes.

Last week, in a private session with German parliamentarians, he described his own grief following the drone strike that killed his family members.

“I suffered every parent’s worst nightmare…..my son and brother….were sitting in our house, working on the computer and having tea, when a missile destroyed their futures.  Both had bright futures. My brother had a Masters degree and taught English in our local government-run school. My son was working part time in another local school in order to raise money so he could further his education. This is a tradition in my family – we are all teachers or doctors. That is who we are. And that is who my son wanted to be.”

People in rural North Pakistan are accustomed to being denied justice; relatives of the thousands believed to have been killed or lost loved ones due to the CIA drone strikes have gone to local authorities, only to be ignored. As Akbar told The Intercept:

“Most of the Waziris just take it as their fate, they are told by their mullahs or politicians that it’s just an act of God and they can’t do anything about it…. Kareem was the first person who really wanted to do something about what had happened to his family.”

Khan has long known he could pay a price for his actions. Soon after filing the high-profile legal challenge in the Islamabad High Court against the CIA in 2010 – specifically naming former station chief Jonathan Banks as a defendant – as well as a formal complaint to the UN Human Rights Council, he began facing threats and intimidation.

The terror of his detention and torture is still evident when speaking to Khan. Even while travelling in Europe, he is still unable to sleep out of fear that he will be awoken and detained again in the dead of night. At the sight of a German police car he tenses up in fear. For a man who has already endured the deaths of his family members, his recent imprisonment is another cause for emotional distress.

But Khan is determined to put a human face to the victims of drones who are often counted as mere statistics. He believes that allowing himself to be silenced will only keep the drone program out of legal and public oversight. What’s more, as Gibson says, “Drone strikes are only part of the story.” Psychological trauma is now endemic among the people of rural Waziristan; both as a result of drone strikes and abuses by local security forces.

“Everyone in these areas being subjected to drone attacks is a victim, they never know if they’re going to be killed on any given day,” she says. “They don’t know why these attacks are happening or how they can protect themselves and their families. Entire communities are being terrorized on a daily basis.”

At a recent Congressional hearing, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, defended the drone program, warning that recently announced changes to the program, meant to provide safeguards and openness, “are endangering the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas.”

However according to Gibson, such pleas are really about allowing the program to continue in secrecy and with impunity. Recent revelations in this publication about the use of highly circumstantial metadata to make life-or-death targeting decisions would seem to lend credence to her argument. As she told The Intercept:

“This program is based on flawed intelligence, no public oversight….it doesn’t matter what the technology is if the intelligence is bad. The people in Waziristan have children, families, and until we begin to understand who we’re killing the public will not be able to appreciate the kind of indiscriminate harm we are inflicting on these communities.”

Such circumstances further fueled Khan’s lawsuit – one which he hopes to pursue in European and international courts as well.

It will be an uphill battle. A different lawsuit, filed by Reprieve on behalf of drone victim Noor Khan – whose father was killed in a 2011 strike – was recently thrown out by a British court, which specifically cited its fear of criticizing the United States as cause for dismissal. While the court found the allegations of GCHQ involvement in the killing of his father was “compelling”, the legal challenge was still rejected on the grounds that: “a finding by our court that the notional UK operator of a drone bomb which caused a death was guilty of murder would inevitably be understood…by the US as a condemnation of the US.” In effect, justice continues to be denied to the innocent victims of drone strikes on purely political grounds.

Nevertheless, Kareem Khan remains hopeful that he will win justice for the deaths of his brother and son. He is heartened by the international outcry over his detention, which has given him greater confidence in his own struggle for justice. In addition to statements by international politicians and lawyers demanding his immediate release, protests and an online campaign were also launched to put pressure on the Pakistani government to secure his release. Upon seeing the clips of protests by international activists decrying his detention Khan would say: “Except for my family, I didn’t think anyone would care if I disappeared….After my release from this captivity, when I saw what all these people had done to help me, I realized what a strong difference a community can make. The only reason I know I was released was because of this.”