Jon Boone / The Guardian & Kevin Gosztola / Dissenter, FireDogLake – 2013-10-22 22:27:55
US Drone Strikes Could Be Classed as War Crimes, Says Amnesty International
Jon Boone / The Guardian
ISLAMABAD (October 21, 2013) — US officials responsible for the secret CIA drone campaign against suspected terrorists in Pakistan may have committed war crimes and should stand trial, a report by a leading human rights group warns. Amnesty International has highlighted the case of a grandmother who was killed while she was picking vegetables and other incidents, which could have broken international laws designed to protect civilians.
The report is issued in conjunction with an investigation by Human Rights Watch detailing missile attacks in Yemen which the group believes could contravene the laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and Barack Obama’s own guidelines on drones.
The reports are being published while Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, is in Washington. Sharif has promised to tell Obama that the drone strikes — which have caused outrage in Pakistan — must end.
Getting to the bottom of individual strikes is exceptionally difficult in the restive areas bordering Afghanistan, where thousands of militants have settled. People are often terrified of speaking out, fearing retribution from both militants and the state, which is widely suspected of colluding with the CIA-led campaign.
There is also a risk of militants attempting to skew outside research by forcing interviewees into “providing false or inaccurate information”, the report said.
But Amnesty mounted a major effort to investigate nine of the many attacks to have struck the region over the last 18 months, including one that killed 18 labourers in North Waziristan as they waited to eat dinner in an area of heavy Taliban influence in July 2012. All those interviewed by Amnesty strongly denied any of the men had been involved in militancy. Even if they were members of a banned group, that would not be enough to justify killing them, the report said.
“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” the report said. It called for those responsible to stand trial.
The US has repeatedly claimed very few civilians have been killed by drones. It argues its campaign is conducted “consistent with all applicable domestic and international law”.
The Amnesty report supports media accounts from October last year that a 68-year-old woman called Mamana Bibi was killed by a missile fired from a drone while she was picking okra outside her home in North Waziristan with her grandchildren nearby. A second strike minutes later injured family members tending her.
If true, the case is striking failure of a technology much vaunted for its accuracy. It is claimed the remote-controlled planes are able to observe their targets for hours or even days to verify them, and that the explosive force of the missiles is designed to limit collateral damage. As with other controversial drone strikes, the US has refused to acknowledge or explain what happened.
Amnesty said it accepts some US drone strikes may not violate the law, “but it is impossible to reach any firm assessment without a full disclosure of the facts surrounding individual attacks and their legal basis. The USA appears to be exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the region to evade accountability for its violations,” it said.
In Yemen, another country where US drones are active, Human Rights Watch highlighted six incidents, two of which were a “clear violation of international humanitarian law”. The remaining four may have broken the laws of armed conflict because the targets were illegitimate or because not enough was done to minimise civilian harm, the report said.
It also argued that some of the Yemen attacks breach the guidelines announced by Obama earlier this year in his first major speech on a programme that is officially top secret. For example, the pledge to kill suspects only when it is impossible to capture them appears to have been ignored on 17 April this year when an al-Qaida leader was blown up in a township in Dhamar province in central Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
An attack on a truck driving 12 miles south of the capital Sana’a reportedly killed two al-Qaida suspects but also two civilians who had been hired by the other men. That means the attack could have been illegal because it “may have caused disproportionate harm to civilians”.
The legal arguments over drones are extremely complex, with much controversy focusing on whether or not the places where they are used amount to war zones.
Amnesty said some of the strikes in Pakistan might be covered by that claim, but rejected a “global war doctrine” that allows the US to attack al-Qaida anywhere in the world.
“To accept such a policy would be to endorse state practices that fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making,” the report said.
Drone Victims Recount Horror of Follow-Up Strikes
Launched Against People Rescuing Wounded
Kevin Gosztola / Dissenter, FireDogLake
(October 22, 2013) — Human rights organization, Amnesty International, has released a report that presents two case studies on victims of United States drone strikes in Pakistan and also details the practice of signature strikes, which has led to rescuers being killed in follow-up attacks while they are trying to help wounded individuals.
Both of the drone strikes detailed in the report, “Will I Be Next?”, occurred in 2012 and were reported. In the aftermath of one of the strikes, there was particular focus on the fact that the US was deliberately attacking civilian rescuers after the first strike was launched against whomever had been targeted.
On July 6, 2012, laborers from the Zowi Sidgi village were gathered in a tent after working a long day in the summer heat. Residents nearby could clearly see four drones were flying overhead. Then, as the Amnesty International report describes, “the sound of multiple missiles” suddenly was heard “piercing the sky, hitting the tent and killing at least eight people instantly.”
Ahsan, a chromite miner who lives in Zowi Sidgi, said, “When we went to where the missiles hit to help people; we saw a very horrible scene. Body parts were scattered everywhere. [I saw] bodies without heads and bodies without hands or legs. Everyone in the hut was cut to pieces.”
There was panic, with people running to their homes, to trees, anywhere to escape. Some villagers chose to go see if there were any survivors.
One of the laborers, Junaid, recounted how people attempted to collect bodies. They carried stretchers, blankets and water. But, minutes later, another series of missiles were launched. They targeted those who had come to clean up the devastation and six people were instantly killed. Two others died from wounds.
In total, “18 people were killed in the drone strikes that evening and at least 22 others were injured, including an eight-year-old girl named Shehrbano who sustained shrapne linjuries to her leg.”
“Some people lost their hands,” Nabeel said of the second strike. “Others had their heads cut off. Some lost their legs. Human body parts were scattered everywhere on the ground. The bodies were burnt and it was not possible to recognize them.”
No more villagers went near where victims had been killed until the next morning. Just about everyone feared if they came close to the site they would be killed in another attack.
In another attack on October 24, 2012, which Amnesty International detailed in the organization’s report, a sixty-eight year-old grandmother named Mamana Bibi was killed instantly by two Hellfire missiles while she was gathering okra in the family fields for cooking that evening. Two grandchildren, Zuhair and Nabeela, witnessed the drone strike.
“There was a very bad smell and the area was full of smoke and dust. I couldn’t breathe properly for several minutes,” said Zubair.
Nabeela recalled the explosion had been “very close to us” and had been “very strong.” It took her into the air and pushed her to the ground. When she ventured to where her grandmother had been killed, Nabeela said, “I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards,” recalled Nabeela. “It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”
Following this attack, a “second volley of drone missiles” were fired. They hit a “vacant area of the field” nine feet from where their grandmother had been standing.
The report describes:
A few minutes after the first strike a second volley of drone missiles was fired, hitting a vacant area of the field around 9ft from where Mamana Bibi was killed. Mamana Bibi’s grandsons Kaleemul and Samadur Rehman were there, having rushed to the scene when the first volley struck. Kaleemul Rehman recalled: “I was sitting at my home drinking tea [when] suddenly I heard a sound of explosions. I ran outside and saw the rocket had left a big crater in the field and dead animals, and the area was full of smoke and dust. I could not see my grandmother anywhere.”
As the two boys surveyed the area, they discovered their grandmother had been blown to pieces. Fearing further attacks, the two tried to flee the area when the second volley of missiles was fired. Kaleemul was hit by shrapnel, breaking his left leg and suffering a large, deep gash to that thigh. “This time I felt something hit my leg and the wave of the blast knocked me unconscious,” Kaleemul said. “Later I regained consciousness and noticed that my leg was wounded and my cousin was carrying me on his back to the main road, about 1.5 miles away.” From there, a car drove Kaleemul to the Agency Headquarters Hospital.
Mamana Bibi, an elderly woman, was not engaged in any fighting when she was hit. She may have been killed as a result of “faulty intelligence.” Or, perhaps, “drone operators deliberately targeted and killed” her. It is unknown what exactly happened because US officials refuse to provide additional information.
UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Christof Heyns has called this CIA tactic of targeting civilian rescuers a “war crime.”
“When one drone attack is followed up by another in order to target those who are wounded and hors de combat or medical personnel, it constitutes a war crime in armed conflict and a violation of the right to life, whether or not in armed conflict,” he wrote in a recent UN report on drones.
Zalan, a resident of Mir Ali, which is a village in North Waziristan, told Amnesty International, “The people think that if we gather at the incident site after the drone attack there is a possibility of further attacks on them because the drones might think Taliban have gathered and fire again.”
Amnesty International contends that evidence of “follow-up attacks, possibly on the presumption that they too were members of the group being targeted by the USA,” makes it “virtually impossible for drone strikes to be surgically precise as claimed by US Administration officials, even if certain attacks comply with the necessary standards under international law.”
A Second Drone Strike Targeted Rescuers
The report highlights two other attacks, which involved similar signature strikes, in less detail. On July 23, 2012, after targeting fighters from a group that is part of the Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban, six were killed in a follow-up strike while trying to rescue those wounded. These people were not participating in “hostilities.”
On June 4, 2012, early in the morning, five men were killed in drone strike that hit a building in the village of Esso Khel. Locals arrived to assist victims. Those hit were likely Arabs or Central Asians that were members of al Qaeda. After this attack:
As one resident explained to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which also did research on this case, “They started rescue work and were collecting body pieces of the slain people and pulling out the injured from debris of the building when the drones started firing again.”
The use of drones has brought fear or terror to the innocent lives of Pakistanis. One resident said, “When the drone plane comes and we hear the sound of â€˜ghommm’ people feel very scared. The drone plane can launch missiles at any time.”
But Pakistanis do not just have US drone strikes to fear. They have to fear attacks from Pakistani forces and other armed groups, particularly if they live in North Waziristan. Such armed groups have engaged in “unlawful killings” and committed war crimes. Pakistan has done a poor job of bringing those responsible to justice in fair trials.
Each of the people who Amnesty International spoke to for the report “did so at great personal risk, knowing that they might face reprisals from US or Pakistani authorities, the Taliban, or other groups. They spoke out because they were anxious to make known the human cost of the drone program, and the impact on themselves and their communities of living in a state of fear.”
Chillingly, a person unnamed in the report who witnessed a drone strike, said, “It is difficult to trust anyone. I can’t even trust my own brother … After I spoke to you some men in plain clothes visited me [in North Waziristan]. I don’t know who they were, whether they were Taliban or someone else; they were not from our village.”
I was clearly warned not to give any more information about the victims of drone strikes. They told me it is fine if I continue to do my work but I should not share any information with the people who come here,” the person added.
To read “Will I Be Next?”, the full report on drone strikes in Pakistan, go here.
Obama Administration Has Launched Drone Strikes
Against AQAP Suspects Who Could’ve Been Captured
Kevin Gosztola / Dissenter, FireDogLake
(October 22, 2013) — Both Amnesty International and Human Right Watch (HRW) released reports on drone strikes launched by the United States, which included firsthand accounts of what happened from people who witnessed family, friends or others being killed or wounded.
In some of the cases, individuals allegedly known to be members of al Qaeda, Taliban or other armed groups were killed, but, in various other instances, victims killed had no connection to any alleged terrorists. A number of people even died trying to rescue the wounded and clean up the devastation after the “target” was hit.
Portions of the Amnesty International report, which focused on strikes in Pakistan, were already highlighted at Firedoglake. The following will look at portions of the report from HRW that examines multiple drone strikes in Yemen.
In Wessab on April 17, 2013, suspected local AQAP leader, Hamid al-Radmi was killed by two drones that launched “at least three Hellfire missiles” at a car. His driver and two bodyguards were killed. Al-Radmi could probably have been captured as he had been “meeting regularly with security and political officials.”
On January 23, 2013, four people were killed in a truck in al-Masnaah. Two of the passengers were “suspected AQAP members” while two others, a driver and cousin, had been hired to drive the AQAP suspects to Sanhan, just southeast of the country’s capital, Sanaa. Yemen’s Minister of Interior found they had no ties to the two AQAP suspects.
Lt. Col. Adnan al-Qadhi, who was an “officer in an elite Yemeni army unit” suspected of being a local AQAP leader, was killed along with a bodyguard on November 7, 2012, in Beit al-Ahmar. He, too, could probably have been captured. “In April 2013, AQAP issued a video in which an 8-year-old boy, held with his father, a soldier, â€˜confessed’ that military officers instructed him to plant a tracking device on al-Qadhi,” the report said.
On September 2, 2012, a vehicle headed to the city of Radaa was attacked by two drones in Sarar. Twelve passengers, including three children and a pregnant woman, were killed. Apparently, the target was Abd al-Raouf al-Dahab, who had not been in the vehicle. It is unclear if he is even a member of AQAP and, after Human Rights Watch and others campaigned on behalf of victims, Yemeni authorities finally provided some compensation in June 2013 to families for the deaths.
Five men in Khashamir in Yemen were standing behind a local mosque when three Hellfire missiles were launched at them by a drone on August 29, 2012. “The strike killed four of the men instantly,” according to Human Rights Watch, “hurling their body parts across the grounds. The blast of a fourth missile hit the fifth man as he crawled away, pinning him lifeless to a wall.”
Three of the people killed were alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while two others they were meeting were Salim bin Jaber, a cleric who had preached against violence being committed by AQAP, and Salim’s cousin, Walid bin Ali Jaber, a police officer in the village. AQAP members had “demanded a meeting with the cleric because the previous Friday he had made a particularly strong denunciation of AQAP at the local mosque.” Walid participated in the meeting as “a security measure.”
And the report highlights the attack on al-Majalah on December 17, 2009, a deadly strike where the US launched at least five US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles with cluster munitions. Forty-one local civilians in a Bedouin camp, including nine women and twenty-one children were killed, along with fourteen suspected AQAP fighters including Muhammad al-Kazami, who apparently was the target. [The attack involved indiscriminate cluster munitions and was given particular focus in Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars project.]
The drone attack in Wessab that killed al-Radmi is worth detailing further, as it seriously undermines the claims by President Barack Obama’s administration that terrorist suspects are being captured when feasible.
Farea al-Muslimi, who is from Wessab and testified before Congress in April, worked as a consultant for HRW and interviewed twenty-five residents. Two were local security officials and three were relatives of people killed.
According to al-Muslimi’s research, government officials in Yemen did consider al-Radmi to be a “local AQAP leader and recruiter.” He “spent a decade in prison — four years starting in 1995 for killing his cousin, and six years starting in 2004 on a terrorism-related conviction.” A “friend” said al-Radmi had traveled to Iraq to fight the US after troops invaded the country in 2003. However, al-Radmi was an influential person in Wessab.
Al-Radmi met regularly with security officials at government offices just a few minutes’ walk from his house and was returning with a local official from a meeting an hour’s drive from his home when he was killed,” describes the HRW report.
When villagers came upon the site of the attack, “they saw al-Radmi’s charred body half ejected from the vehicle, two other charred corpses inside, and a fourth man outside the car.”
Ahmad Hamoud Qaed Daer, the father of al-Radmi’s driver who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, told HRW:
The fire was high; no one dared get close and the planes [drones] were hovering above. I also heard someone saying, “I’m Ghazi al-Emad, please help me.” I couldn’t do anything. … It was dark and there was a lot of smoke. There was no moon and I didn’t even have a flashlight. I saw my son, charred, in the front seat. … I didn’t even know that he was driving for Hamid that day.
An attempt was made to rescue Emad. But, “His [Emad’s] legs were cut off from the knee down and there was a lot of blood coming from his mouth.”
“We saw later that his stomach was bleeding as well and his eyes were burned. He couldn’t open them and was blinded. He was screaming and then his voice slowly dropped. It became lower, lower, and lower until he couldn’t talk,” Daer recounted.
This drone attack created much anger and outrage. Qaed al-Farimi, a well-known resident in Wessab who was a friend of al-Radmi’s, said the blast “terrorized the people.”
People were going to their roofs and screaming … and cursing, “Who is this bombing at night? [Expletive] his father!” They [the blasts] terrified even children and women. Some ran out of their houses and some ran to the basements to hide where their cows live because of the fear. Even the second day, the planes [drones] were there until we buried them. I swear by Allah if we had had weapons, not a single plane would leave. We would take them down because they terrified the village.
A ranking security officer, who refused to be named in the report, apparently believes he could have gone to al-Radmi’s house to arrest him. Another local security officer believed this as well. He had a meeting in three days with a governor of Dhamar. But there was never an order put out for his arrest.
Relatives would have been willing to turn him into authorities. HRW’s report says relatives play an important role in administering justice in Yemen’s tightly knit family and tribal system.”
A cousin named Muhammad ali Saleh, who is an elderly farmer, believes the US turned al-Radmi into a martyr.
“They should have taken him to court, brother,” he said. “Charge him and keep him in prison and even hang him there up and down every day but not kill him like that if he committed a crime. Now people are crying about him everywhere. What does that accomplish?”
It’s unclear what role al-Radmi had in AQAP. However, that is insignificant compared to the fact that the terror and rage could have been avoided if the US had sought to capture al-Radmi.
Three of the cases HRW investigated involved evidence that indicated the “target” could have been captured because the area had been under government control.
The secrecy surrounding the US government’s drone policies and operations, along with the secrecy of the Yemeni government, makes it difficult to fully assess what is happening in Yemen.
“Lack of access to the attack areas, most of which are too dangerous for international media and investigators to visit,” like in Pakistan, “makes it extremely difficult to verify casualty figures, conclusively determine how many of those killed were civilians, and learn the full circumstances of a strike,” according to HRW.
What is not hard to figure out, and further confirmed by this HRW report, is the destructive effect US drone strikes have had on Yemeni society. They directly foment rage that can be channeled into malicious acts like killing alleged informers. They drive Yemenis to want to take up arms against the US. They further weaken the rule of law in Yemen because it deprives officials of the opportunity to try and bring these suspects to justice appropriately.
Finally, many Yemenis have been confronted with what they think is a choice they must make: drones or AQAP. It is a false choice yet the feelings of powerlessness perpetuated by US influence and counterterrorism operations in Yemen feeds this dynamic, which is quite clearly unhealthy for the stability of the country.
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