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Pakistani activists to new prime minister: Shoot down the drones or be sued

ISLAMABAD – For some Pakistanis, the long war against drone strikes appears to be culminating.

After a recent landmark court ruling that ordered the government to act to stop the U.S.-run operation over Pakistani skies, civilian victims of drone strikes in North Waziristan are upping the ante with the newly elected prime minister, asking him to stop the strikes, shoot down the drones, or prepare for a court battle.

Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer who represents drone victims and also campaigns against drone strikes, laid out the warning in a 1,300-word open letter to Nawaz Sharif, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan.

The letter states: “Dear Prime Minister, we are under attack. U.S. drones are not only violating our sovereignty but also terrorizing our communities and raining Hellfire missiles down upon our men, women and children.”  

The “drone letter” is the first legal challenge faced by three-time premier Sharif, who assumed office on Wednesday. Sharif, a center-right, pro-business politician who heads the conservative Pakistan Muslim League.

Nawaz told parliament in his first address: "We respect the sovereignty of others. But others don't respect our sovereignty. These daily drone attacks must stop."

Now, Akbar and his clients are asking Sharif to deliver. But that would involve dealing directly with the United States. 

“What we expect from this prime minister is some action. And the action is that he needs to tell Americans very categorically that he will not tolerate drones anymore in this country. And then he orders Pakistani forces that they need to shoot a drone down and he does so publicly,” Akbar said Thursday.

For Mirdad Khan, 25, a chromite farmer and part-time woodcutter from North Waziristan, Sharif represents a new democratic hope.

“I appeal to the prime minister to stop drone strikes. We are innocent. This is murder,” said Khan, who claims he lost his father, cousin and 35 neighbors to a drone strike on March 17, 2011 in the village of Machamadekhel.

“We are stuck in Waziristan, drones or not. Only this new elected government of Pakistan can help us. No one else can. We don’t have the power to take revenge or seek justice.”

Akbar and his clients, like Khan, are counting on a landmark judgment, which was handed down on May 9 by the Peshawar High Court, and set out a series of measures the Pakistani government must take to stop drone strikes, including, if necessary, deploying the military to shoot them down.

A press release issued by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, the legal charity run by Akbar that is helping drone victims, says the new Pakistani prime minister has been given a tall order by the judgment, and will have to carry out a long list of legal steps:

  • issuing a formal warning to the United States to stop the strikes; 
  • formally raising the issue before both the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly; 
  • and officially requesting the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to establish a war crimes tribunal to investigate drone strikes and hold those involved accountable. 

The court also ordered the United States pay compensation to every Pakistani killed in U.S. drone strikes, as the court held all those killed to be civilians under international law.

British American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who runs Reprieve, a London-based anti-drone rights organization, put the onus for action on Sharif's democratic credentials.

“It is time for Nawaz Sharif to put his words into action. Any politician's first duty is to prevent his own citizens from being murdered. So Mr. Sharif must implement the Peshawar High Court’s decision and put an end to illegal U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. It is the only way to end the daily terror circling over thousands of Pakistanis who are demonstrably not guilty of any offense.”

But no sudden moves from Pakistan’s new leader are expected.

"Sharif is likely to take a cautious line on drone attacks. He is appeasing the popular outrage against drones and also keeping the imperatives of Pakistan's vital engagement with U.S. and its commitment,” said Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute, a progressive Islamabad-based think tank.

“But as prime minister it would be difficult for Sharif to balance the two conflicting realities and [it] would test his diplomatic and political skills."