'The string that held the pearls of our family together… has been broken, and we are all lost’
The policy of remote targeted assassination via drones adopted by the U.S. was given a human face on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as a schoolteacher from rural Pakistan — present there with his young son and daughter — described at a Congressional hearing the death of his 67-year old mother in a drone attack.
Rafiq ur Rehman; his son Zubair (13); and daughter Nabila (9) told a packed room in the Rayburn House Office Building that Momina Bibi, who perished on October 24, 2012 while working in a field near their home in North Waziristan, was “the string that held the pearls of our family together, and that string has been broken, and we are all lost”.
‘Deep fear of terror’
Zubair said that his grandmother and he shared a love for the blue sky. However, ever since she was killed on a bright sunny day, just as they were making plans to celebrate Id, he has harboured a deep fear of ‘terror from above’, and preferred cloudy weather, when a drone attack is unlikely.
Alan Grayson (Democrat-Florida), who had called for the hearing, was among the many listening when Mr. Rehman said, “I speak on behalf of other drone victim families as well when I say: Drones are not the way. I ask Americans to treat us as equals. Justice must be delivered to those who have suffered from the unjust.”
The first ever Congressional hearing of victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan comes days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unsuccessfully raised a request to scale back the attacks during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
‘Lawful and effective’
Even before he formally met the President at the Oval Office, administration officials pre-empted his plea saying at a media briefing that drone strikes were “precise”, “lawful” and “effective”, and involved a minimum of unintended casualty.
Yet Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with human rights advocacy group Reprieve, who also travelled with the Rehman family from Pakistan to Washington, said at the hearing that the accounts from drone victims revealed a secret war that was immoral and unjust, and although defenders of the programme argued that drones were more precise than the alternative, it has been shown that the intelligence behind these attacks was flawed.
Organisers of Tuesday’s hearing also expressed deep concern that Mr. Rehman’s attorney in Pakistan, Shahzad Akbar, was not given a visa to attend the hearing.
Though Mr. Akbar had frequently visited the U.S. in the past he has not been given an entry visa since 2011, when he began representing Pakistani victims of CIA drone strikes.
However in remarks sent via email to The Hindu Mr. Akbar said, “The Obama administration’s refusal to grant me visa is to keep Congress out of drone programme, because Congress’ [involvement] would mean transparency of the programme” and this would be a “nightmare” for the CIA and White House.
He added that although he had heard reports of a fund of $60 million allocated for the compensation of drone victims, “nothing has been disbursed and certainly nothing in Pakistan”.
Yet he was firm that though Mr. Sharif’s efforts to petition Mr. Obama to reduce drone attacks had failed, the Prime Minister could have been “very categorical in his demands”, and suggested that Pakistan could withdraw its counterterrorism cooperation, suspend NATO supply lines or even “shoot down the drones as it will be within [Pakistan’s] legal right to do so”.