The Bush administration used to play these games but I’d like to believe the Obama administration is above this sort of thing:
I am a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the CIA for killing innocent civilians through drone strikes in my home country. This month, the US state department prevented me from travelling to the United States to participate in a conference hosted by the human rights programme at Columbia University law school in New York City.
I have been granted US visas before and no reason was given by the state department for refusal on this occasion: despite repeated enquiries, we were merely told there was a “problem” with my application. If seeking justice through the law – instead of violence – is the reason for banning my travel, then mine is another story of how government measures in the name of “national security” have gone too far.
Although I have previously held consultancies with USAID, and helped the FBI investigate a terrorism case involving a Pakistani diplomat, my relationship with the US government changed dramatically in 2010, when I decided to take on the case of Karim Khan. Karim Khan was away from home on New Year’s Eve 2009 when two missiles fired from what we believe was a CIA-operated drone struck his family home in North Waziristan and killed his son, aged 18, and his brother, aged 35. Informed over the phone of their deaths, he rushed back to find his home destroyed and his brother’s family – now a widow and two-year-old son – devastated.
To avenge their deaths, Khan could have joined the Taliban insurgency against the United States. Instead, he put his trust in the legal system. In November 2010, we initiated legal notices against the CIA and the US secretary of defence for their wrongful deaths. Since then, more than 35 families from Pakistan have come forward and joined us in our legal proceedings.
So, why would the US government want to prevent me from discussing these cases at Columbia law school? Perhaps, it is because our legal challenge disrupts the narrative of “precision strikes” against “high-value targets” as an unqualified success against terrorism, at minimal cost to civilian life.
As a lawyer in Pakistan, my experiences tell a different story. A 17-year-old boy named Sadaullah – another victim of the drone attacks – sought my help shortly after we filed Karim Khan’s case. In September 2009, when he was 15 years old, Sadaullah was serving food at a family iftar, the traditional breaking of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, when missiles from a drone struck his grandfather’s home and killed four of his relatives. Falling debris knocked Sadaullah out, but he survived. When he awoke in a Peshawar hospital, he found that both his legs had been amputated and shrapnel had penetrated his eye, rendering it useless. Pakistani media reported that the strike had killed Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant leader. But months later, Ilyas Kahsmiri was seen alive in Afghanistan. It was only a few weeks ago that the militant was reportedly killed in yet another drone strike.
While the U.S. may not like the fact that the lawyer, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, is suing the U.S., but to deny him entry knowing that his primary reason for traveling here is to participate in a legal roundtable at Columbia University, is just petty. In this country we support and encourage all types of academic debate, although I will admit that of late, there is a growing movement to stifle it, but that’s another topic for another day.
After 9/11 it was/is more than rational to adopt some policies that make fighting terrorism easier. But we have crossed so many lines that at times our actions seem completely divorced from the very founding principles that we claim to espouse. We have used anti-terrorism laws to do all kinds of unethical and at times arguably illegal things- cloak government wrongdoing under a veil of secrecy, prosecute whistle-blowers who expose said wrongdoing, engage in undeclared, covert wars w/o any national debate or accountability, expand the power of the Executive Branch in order to escape Congressional and judicial oversight, torture and humiliate individuals who have not been found guilty of any crime, harass citizens who speak out against certain U.S. government policies, assassinate US citizens abroad, engage in domestic spying and data mining of confidential, protected information, detain US citizens indefinitely and I could go on and on.
This isn’t who we are, we are better than this. How can we wag our finger and lecture other countries about human rights, justice and the rule of law when we ourselves increasingly act outside of it? History has shown us that during times of war and economic uncertainty governments have a tendency to use “security” as an excuse to infringe on civil liberties and enact policies that otherwise wouldn’t be accepted as reasonable or just by the populace.
Now it goes without saying that the U.S., like any other country, has the right to determine who is allowed to enter the country and who is not. That said, we’ve historically frowned upon using such a power to punish people who may express views with which we disagree. Because that’s what countries like China, Libya and Saudi Arabia do. However, the Obama administration’s decision to bar Attorney Akbar from entering the U.S. to give the Pakistani viewpoint of the Afghan War and to explain why he is bringing his legal suit, seems to be based not on any security threat or principled stand but rather simply based on vindictiveness.