Pakistani man threatens to sue CIA if not compensated for relatives' deaths

By Karin Brulliard and Shaiq Hussain
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 29, 2010; 2:37 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A Pakistani man who said two of his relatives were killed in a U.S. drone strike said Monday that he planned to sue the CIA in Pakistani courts for "wrongful death" if he is not compensated within two weeks, a move that could renew debate over the legality of the covert program.

Kareem Khan, a journalist from the semi-autonomous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, said he was seeking $500 million in damages from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, CIA director Leon Panetta and the CIA station chief in this capital city. Khan said the strike killed his brother, his son and another man. He said that they were not connected to Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who are based in the region and are the targets of regular CIA drone strikes.

The U.S. carries out unmanned drone strikes in the tribal areas with the cooperation of the Pakistani government, but neither nation publicly acknowledges the clandestine program, and it is unlikely U.S. officials would cooperate with a court case. The attacks have increased sharply this year, and the vast majority have targeted militants in North Waziristan.

The drone strikes are highly controversial in Pakistan, where they are frequently blamed for civilian casualties and characterized as a violation of national sovereignty. But victims rarely come forward with their accounts or photographic evidence, and danger and government travel restrictions in the tribal belt make it all but impossible to investigate such claims independently.

Speaking anonymously, U.S. and many Pakistani officials insist the strikes are precise.

Legal experts and human rights activists are divided on the legality of unmanned drone strikes, but some say that those involved could be held responsible in court for errant attacks. In congressional testimony in April, Loyola Law School professor David Glazier said CIA drone pilots could be "liable to prosecution under the law of any jurisdiction where attacks occur for any injuries, deaths or property damage they cause."

But Khan's effort probably would face long odds: Successfully bringing suit against the CIA for counterterrorism operations has been extremely difficult in U.S. courts, let alone courts overseas.

CIA spokesman George Little declined to comment Monday on Khan's claim. But, he said, the CIA "is conducting the most aggressive counterterrorism operations in our history. These efforts - which are precise and effective - are carried out in strict accord with applicable American and international law."

Khan said his brother and 18-year-old son, both teachers, were killed when a U.S. missile struck Khan's home in the town of Mir Ali. A mason who was staying with them was also killed, he said. Khan said he was in Islamabad at the time of the attack.

His attorney, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, provided reporters with blurred photos of deceased men he said were Khan's son and brother, but he had no photos of the damaged house.

"My client is a victim of naked aggression by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States," Akbar said.

Khan said he would file civil and criminal lawsuits in Pakistan against CIA officials if he is not compensated within two weeks. Because CIA officials who work in Pakistan on the drone-strike program do not have diplomatic immunity and are not members of the military, Akbar argued, they can be prosecuted for murder as civilians.

Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report from Washington.

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