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The CIA's unaccountable drone war claims another casualty

Tariq Aziz (centre, second row) attending a meeting about drones strikes in Waziristan, held in Islamabad, Pakistan on 28 October 2011. Three days later, the 16 year old was reported killed by a drone-launched missile. Photograph: Pratap Chatterjee/BIJ

by Pratap Chatterjee

Last Friday, I met a boy, just before he was assassinated by the CIA. Tariq Aziz was 16, a quiet young man from North Waziristan, who, like most teenagers, enjoyed soccer. Seventy-two hours later, a Hellfire missile is believed to have killed him as he was travelling in a car to meet his aunt in Miran Shah, to take her home after her wedding. Killed with him was his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan.

Over 2,300 people in Pakistan have been killed by such missiles carried by drone aircraft such as the Predator and the Reaper, and launched by remote control from Langley, Virginia. Tariq and Waheed brought the known total of children killed in this way to 175, according to statistics maintained by the organisation I work for, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

 

The final order to kill is signed allegedly by Stephen Preston, the general counsel at the CIA headquarters. What evidence, I would like to know, does Mr Preston have against Tariq and Waheed? What right does he have to act as judge, jury and executioner of two teenage boys neither he nor his staff have ever met, let alone cross-examined, or given the opportunity to present witnesses?

It is not too late to call for a prosecution and trial of whoever pushed the button and the US government officials who gave the order: that is, Mr Preston and his boss, President Barack Obama.

 

There are many people whom I know who can appear as witnesses in this trial. We – a pair of reporters, together with several lawyers from Britain, Pakistan and the US – met the victim and dozens of other young men from North Waziristan for dinner at the Margalla hotel in Islamabad on Thursday 27 October. We talked about their local soccer teams, which they proudly related were named for Brazil, New Zealand and other nations, which they had heard about but never visited.

The next morning, I filmed young Tariq walking into a conference hall to greet his elders. I reviewed the tape after he was killed to see what was recorded of some of his last moments: he walks shyly and greets the Waziri elders in the traditional style by briefly touching their chests. With his friends, he walks to a set of chairs towards the back of the hall, and they argue briefly about where each of them will sit. Over the course of the morning, Tariq appears again in many photographs that dozens of those present took, always sitting quietly and listening intently.

Tariq was attending a "Waziristan Grand Jirga" on behalf of drone strike victims in Pakistan, which was held at the Margalla hotel the following day. As is the Pashtun custom, the young men, each of whom had lost a friend or relative in a drone strike, did not speak. For four hours, the Waziri elders debated the drone war, and then they listened to a resolution condemning the attacks, read out by Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer from the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. The group voted for this unanimously.

Neil Williams, a volunteer from Reprieve, the British legal charity, sat down and chatted with Tariq after the jirga was over. Together, they traveled in a van to the Pakistani parliament for a protest rally against drone strikes led by Imran Khan, a former cricketer, and now the leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf political party.

The next day, the group returned home to Waziristan. On Monday, Tariq was killed, according to his uncle Noor Kalam.

The question I would pose to the jury is this: would a terrorist suspect come to a public meeting and converse openly with foreign lawyers and reporters, and allow himself to be photographed and interviewed? More importantly, since he was so easily available, why could Tariq not have been detained in Islamabad, when we spent 48 hours together? Neither Tariz Aziz nor the lawyers attending this meeting had a highly trained private security detail that could have put up resistance.

Attending that jirga, however, were Clive Stafford Smith and Tara Murray, two US lawyers who trained at Columbia and Harvard. They tell me, unequivocally, that US law is based on the fact that every person is innocent until proven guilty. Why was Tariq, even if a terrorist suspect, not offered an opportunity to defend himself?

Let me offer an important alternative argument – the US government has a record of making terrible mistakes in this covert war. On 2 September 2010, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan claimed to have killed Muhammad Amin, the alleged Taliban deputy governor of Takhar province in Afghanistan, in a drone strike. There was only one problem: Michael Semple, a Taliban expert at Harvard University, subsequently interviewed Muhammad Amin and confirmed that he was alive and well and living in Pakistan in March 2011.

The man who was killed was Zabet Amanullah, who was out campaigning in parliamentary elections – along with nine of his fellow election workers. This was confirmed by exhaustive research conducted by Kate Clark, a former BBC correspondent in Kabul who now works for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, who had met with Zabet Amanullah in 2008. The error could have been avoided, Clark points out in her report, if US military intelligence officers had just been "watching election coverage on television", instead of living in its "parallel world" remote from "normal, everyday world of Afghan politics".

If Barack Obama's CIA believed in justice and judicial process, they could have attended the Islamabad jirga last Friday and met with Tariq. It was, after all, an open meeting. They could have arrested and charged Tariq with the help of the Pakistani police. If a prosecution is ever mounted over the death of Tariq, those of us who met him on several occasions last week would be happy to testify to the character of the young man that we had met. But if the CIA has evidence to the contrary, it should present it to the world.

Unless the CIA can prove that Tariq Aziz posed an imminent threat (as the White House's legal advice stipulates a targeted killing must in order for an attack to be carried out), or that he was a key planner in a war against the US or Pakistan, the killing of this 16 year old was murder, and any jury should convict the CIA accordingly.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian UK on Monday November 7, 2011.

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