By Katharine Houreld
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A court in Pakistan on Wednesday ordered authorities to produce an anti-drone activist abducted just days before he was due to travel to Europe to meet lawmakers, in a case that spotlights citizens' distrust of the unmanned aircraft and government security forces.
Drones have long been an irritant in relations between Pakistan and the United States, which prizes them for their accuracy in killing al-Qaida and Taliban militants. But Pakistan says they kill civilians and infringe its sovereignty.
A former military ruler has acknowledged he permitted drone flights, however, and many Pakistanis believe the government is still complicit in their use.
Judge Malik Shahzad Ahmed Khan ordered the Interior Ministry to produce activist Kareem Khan in court on February 20 in the city of Rawalpindi, said Shahzad Akbar, the activist's lawyer.
"I'd like to know he's at least safe," Akbar, a prominent anti-drone campaigner, told Reuters. "But my suspicion is that they will come back and say we don't have him."
It is not clear whose custody Khan is in. Police told the court they did not have him, raising the possibility he is being held by Pakistan's shadowy military intelligence agency. Hundreds of Pakistanis are being held in secret prisons and many have been there years without trial.
Khan was taken from his home on February 5 by around a dozen men in police uniforms who bundled him into a police vehicle in front of his wife, children and neighbors, Akbar said.
Khan had been due to travel to Europe on Friday to meet British, German and Dutch lawmakers to talk about the effects of drone strikes on Pakistan, human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.
Khan's brother and son were killed in a US drone attack in December 2009. He was suing both the CIA and the Pakistani government over the deaths in Pakistani court.
The United States says drones are more accurate than any other weapon and a vital tool for killing al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.
But Pakistani deaths in drone strikes are estimated at between 2,537 and 3,646 over the period from 2004 to 2013, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism says, drawing on media reports.
Accurate data is hard to come by because the military usually refuses to allow foreign journalists access to the troubled tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan that are targeted by most strikes.
The Taliban also routinely cordon off the sites of many strikes to keep out locals.
(Reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)