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Is the State Department Trying to Silence Pakistani Drone Victims by Delaying Their Attorney’s Visa?

Shahzad Akbar says the State Department is delaying his visa so he won’t be able to travel to a congressional hearing.

A Reaper drone at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York on July 19, 2012.

Rafiq ur-Rehman’s mother was working as his two children played near her in a field just outside his village of Tappi in the tribal region of North Waziristan in Pakistan when some of the CIA’s pilotless spy planes targeted their village and fired four missiles almost one year ago this month.

Rehman’s children, 13-year-old Nabila and 9-year-old Zubair, watched as the drone strike killed their 67-year-old grandmother, Mamana, instantly, and lodged shrapnel into their legs, hospitalizing them. Rehman returned from work to find the remains of his mother, his injured and bleeding children and a smoking field dotted with dead cattle.

A year later, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) has invited Rehman, who is a primary school teacher in North Waziristan, and his children to testify about their experience before a congressional hearing. It would mark the first time survivors of military drone strikes have traveled to Capitol Hill to give a voice and face to the reality of the CIA’s covert drone program.

But the family can’t travel to the United States to tell lawmakers their story because their attorney’s visa has been delayed by the State Department. Rehman’s attorney and translator, Shahzad Akbar, is a fellow at the human rights organization Reprieve and represents more than 156 drone strike victims.

Akbar has accused the State Department of deliberately barring his entry to the United States to silence the voices of drone strike survivors after they prepared for months to travel to Washington, D.C. The State Department already has granted Rehman’s and his children’s visas.

“I have been blacklisted for simply one reason: that is my drone work. Otherwise, if I am any kind of security threat, [the State Department] can simply say,” Akbar told Truthout in a telephone interview.

This is not the first time Akbar has had trouble gaining entry into the country. Before he began investigating drone strikes in 2010, he traveled frequently to the U.S. as a consultant for U.S. agencies. But when he was invited to speak at a human rights conference in May 2011 at Columbia University about his work on legal cases involving drone strikes, his visa was delayed by the State Department for 14 months.

Akbar told Truthout he has tried to encourage Rehman to travel to the United States without him. But Rehman, who has never traveled outside Pakistan before, would not feel comfortable traveling alone, he said.

Akbar and the Rehman family applied for their visas from the State Department in August when they were interviewed by American officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. A woman in the embassy told Akbar his named had been “flagged.” He was then pulled into a separate room for questioning.

“I was told by the immigration official … that because I have a history with the U.S. they cannot clear my visa and it has to go to D.C.,” Akbar said.

Akbar still is waiting for word from the State Department. The congressional hearing he and Rehman were meant to attend was scheduled for this week but has been canceled. It has yet to be rescheduled.

Akbar has been a very public critic of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan. He is director at the Pakistan-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights and has filed lawsuits against the CIA and government officials in Pakistan. He argues the Obama administration’s drone program is eroding Pakistan’s sovereignty and hurting U.S. national security interests.

Akbar told Truthout that President Obama claims he needs drones to track hard-to-reach militants in Pakistan, but that there is a huge number of Pakistani infantry spread out across the country that could more easily capture combatants with fewer casualties.

“[Obama] should be working within the framework of law, with Pakistani partners or Pakistani military to get hold of whoever they want to capture. That would be less counterproductive compared to drone strikes where civilian casualties are very high,” he said.

Robert Greenwald, a documentary filmmaker with Brave New Films, helped to connect Representative Grayson with Akbar and the Rehman family after he met them while working on his forthcoming film, Unmanned, which investigates drone strikes in Pakistan. Greenwald and Brave New Films are pressuring the State Department to grant Akbar his visa.

“Rafiq and his children, who I interviewed, stayed with me particularly. As a father of four, I’m very strongly affected by anything around children. And he came with his children, and he came with X-rays of the injuries.

“He talked to me, and I talked to the children. And I felt that if I could help arrange for them to come to the United States and talk to elected officials, policymakers, people in the media here, that we could help put a personal face on this abstract policy,” Greenwald said.

According to the Guardian, security officials claimed that up to four militants were killed in the drone strike on Rehman’s village in North Waziristan. But Rehman has said that his mother was the only person killed in the attack, and he also maintains that there were no militants in his village at the time of the strikes.

“If things can settle to talks with Syria and there is an opening with Iran, then why can’t [the U.S.] do the same thing in Pakistan and Afghanistan? If the U.S. is going after and negotiating with the Taliban, why are they still punishing the people of North Waziristan?” Akbar said.

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