Group threatens legal trouble for US over drones

AP News
Posted: May 09, 2011 2:31 PM
Group threatens legal trouble for US over drones

A British rights group is trying to figure out how it can use the British and American legal systems to pursue those behind drone strikes in Pakistan.

The legal advocacy group Reprieve argues that the drone strikes being launched against terror suspects in Pakistan are counterproductive, have no legal grounding, and routinely kill innocent civilians. The group, which has scored some important victories in its defense of detainees at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison camp, says drone strikes should be subject to the same legal scrutiny.

"There are endless ways in which the courts in Britain, the courts in America, the international courts and Pakistani courts can get involved," director Clive Stafford-Smith told journalists in London. "It's going to be the next 'Guantanamo Bay' issue."

The details surrounding drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt are cloaked in secrecy. U.S. officials don't publicly acknowledge them but have said privately they are highly precise, harm very few innocents and are key to weakening al-Qaida and other militants who mount attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Some locals agree about their accuracy, especially when compared to bombing runs by Pakistani jets. But Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who says he is representing a growing number of strike victims' families, claims what he is discovering is "horrific."

"There's evidence of children, and women and elderly (people) being killed _ ample evidence," he said. "We have to go and dig out that evidence and present it to courts."

But which courts and under what circumstances are still open questions.

Stafford-Smith said he was exploring options ranging from civil litigation to criminal prosecution but gave few details. Reprieve's legal director, Cori Crider, said the group might try to pursue individual drone operators in the United States or file suit against the British government if it could show that U.K. intelligence had been used to help target a drone strike.

But Crider acknowledged that U.S. rules which shield government officials from lawsuits would be a formidable obstacle.

Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights attorney and expert on international law, said Stafford-Smith and his colleagues had their work cut out for them.

"You could sue in Pakistan, but America would claim sovereign immunity. So that's not much good. You could do it in America, but that would be likely to run up against problems of disclosure, " he said.

Stafford-Smith seemed to acknowledge that how any prospective lawsuit played in the media could be more important than a lawsuit in court.

"The crucial court here is the court of public opinion," he said.