US Relents and Grants Visa to Lawyer for CIA Drone Strike Victims in Pakistan

Shahzad Akbar told the Guardian: 'They weren't being really smart because it gave me more importance and more of an audience.' Photograph: Mian Kursheed/Reuters

Karen McVeigh | The Guardian

The US government has granted a visa to a lawyer representing civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan who is due to speak at a Washington conference this weekend, following months of pressure by activists and lawyers.

After a 14-month delay in his visa application, which began after he sued the CIA over drone strikes in Pakistan, Shahzad Akbar will now be able to attend the drone summit.

Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who founded the Islamabad-based human rights organisation, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, said he was grateful for the pressure brought to bear on the government by the conference organisers, their supporters and those who covered the story.

Last month, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve, and the peace group Codepink criticised the failure to grant a visa to Akbar, a critical advocate for victims of drone attacks and a key speaker who was to provide a voice for the victims of drone strikes in tribal Pakistan.

Speaking from Pakistan by telephone, Akbar told the Guardian: “They [the US government] realised there was no point in stopping me. They weren’t being really smart because it gave me more importance and more of an audience.”

“I am glad that better sense prevailed and the state department is finally letting me into the country. I will go and speak to American people who are eager to listen to what is happening in this part of the world. I will tell them about the loss of so many innocent Pakistani lives in their name.”

He added: “I believe that Americans are good people, and will want to do something to stop this unjust, counterproductive war that violates all norms of international law and human rights.”

After first applying for a visa to speak in the US more than a year ago, Akbar was granted one this week.

His initial application came shortly after his last US visa had expired, when he was invited to speak at a conference at Columbia University law school in New York about another event addressing human rights concerns over the use of US drones.

But his application was effectively put on hold and he was unable to attend. His last US visa was granted in three days, he said.

He has not had an explanation for the delay, despite repeated inquiries to the US ambassador in Islamabad.

Akbar will fly to Washington on Wednesday. The conference, which takes place on 28 and 29 April, aims to “inform the American public about the widespread and rapidly expanding deployment of both lethal and surveillance drones, including drone use in the United States“, and promises participants the opportunity to listen to the personal stories of Pakistani drone-strike victims, according to its website.

Tara Murray, an attorney at Reprieve, said: “After nearly a year of waiting, it’s about time that Shahzad Akbar is permitted to travel to the US and share with the American people the atrocities that are taking place as a result of the CIA’s covert drone war in Pakistan. We hope this gesture signals a willingness on the part of the US government to engage with the human rights community and to be more transparent and accountable. But only time will tell.”

The summit will hear testimony from investigators, lawyers and robotics technology experts about the expanding use of both lethal and surveillance drones worldwide.

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