Shahzad Akbar (pictured) sees it as his mission to deliver the news of the United States’ covert drone war to the outside world. In Australia for a series of lectures and appearances, the Pakistani barrister and legal director of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights is representing the victims of drone attacks in Waziristan, the north-west region of Pakistan being pelted by unmanned bombers in the hunt for enemy operatives.
With Waziristan cut off from the rest of the country, Akbar’s clients meet with him and his investigators in Islamabad and Peshawar to piece together an account of the cost of drone warfare to civilians living in the region.
“It’s a very abnormal life at the moment because the area is literally cordoned off by the Pakistan military,” he told Crikey this week. “On top of that, they’re living under constant surveillance from the drones.” He continued:
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“In some of the concentrated areas of attack, people limit their movements because of the fear of being killed or maimed. They don’t go out in bigger groups because they don’t dare go out in groups of more than three or four. They don’t go out to weddings, mosques, they don’t send their kids to school any more because of the fear of drones. Our clients bring us information on the attack itself, on who died, what areas have been attacked, on the destruction of their home. We have a questionnaire which asks them how many people died, who was killed, who was injured, the site of the attack, to try to get a specific description of the whole event.”
After meeting with survivors and next-of-kin, Akbar is at pains to substantiate their testimony with as much hard evidence as possible when dealing with a region with often limited record-keeping.
“The process normally takes from three to four months for every client,” he explained. “The background is checked by different sources. For example, if someone comes to us from a tribal background, we check what tribe he’s from so we can talk with tribal elders. If someone is or was a government employee — we have a lot of people who’ve been employed as teachers — we try to get as much information as possible from official records.
“Sometimes if someone has been drawing a pension we find mention of that in a government document that they have died in a drone attack. We try to get to a point where everything is documented and we have as complete a record as possible.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Akbar says his work hasn’t made him angry at America. “It’s a matter of being critical, of investigating the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan and challenging the axis of power,” he said. “If you are the most powerful nation on earth and a nation that claims to represent due process and rule of law, then you can just go around the world killing people without due process just because it’s too easy.”
And he doesn’t absolve elements within Pakistan of responsibility for the attacks. “The government, security forces, the Taliban, the military — they all hold responsibility either for their action or their lack of action,” he said.
He describes his Australian experience, including an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program this week, as “wonderful” — “Australians have a strong commitment to human rights, without actually knowing that they are participating in a war by drone”.
In one biography he states that in his spare time he likes to “cook, sin, read and daydream”. “It’s right that it’s sin, but it depends on the context,” he said. “If someone wants to prosecute me, then no. But otherwise, I’m a sinner at heart.”
A sinner by some people’s definition, perhaps. But on the issue of drone warfare, Akbar might be fighting on the side of the angels.