Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer and legal fellow with the UK-based human rights group Reprieve, may not be given the chance to testify before Congress next week because the US has reportedly blocked his visa application, denying him entry.
“Failing to grant me a visa silences the 156 civilian drone strike victims and families that I represent." –Shahzad Akbar, lawyer and victim advocate
According to The Guardian, Akbar—who also serves as director of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan—has met roadblocks at the State Department over his attempts to travel, along with three of his clients, to Washington, DC in order to give family members of those killed by US drone attacks a chance to tell their stories directly to U.S. lawmakers and the American public at large.
The Guardian reports:
Akbar's clients, Rafiq ur-Rehman, his 13-year-old son, Zubair, and his nine-year-old daughter, Nabila, are from the tribal regions of north Waziristan. The children were injured in the alleged US strike on the village of Tappi last year. Their grandmother – Rehman's mother, Mamana – was killed.
Rehman and his children have spent months making preparations to visit Washington after being invited by US representatives to testify in the ad hoc hearing on drone strikes.
According to Akbar, his clients' visas for the trip have been approved, but his has not. He believes the hold-up is political.
"It's not like my name is scratched because there is some sort of confusion. My name is blocked," Akbar told the Guardian. "Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visa. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years."
According to Reprieve, which has worked closely with some of the victims that are also his clients, Akbar traveled regularly to the US prior to 2011. It was only when he began representing victims of CIA drone strikes, they said, that the lawyer began having significant difficulty getting his U.S. visa processed. This current instance is the second time that the US has failed to grant Mr Akbar a visa to speak at a U.S. event.
“Once again I find myself being denied entry to the U.S. This time to stop me talking to American lawmakers who have invited me to speak about what I have witnessed," said Akbar in a statement released through Reprieve's press office. "I hope to tell them about the impact of drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan, and to shed light on the fact that rather than keeping the US safe, counter-terrorism policies like drone strikes are instead a threat to America’s national security."
“Failing to grant me a visa silences the 156 civilian drone strike victims and families that I represent," Akbar continued. "These families, who have lost children, parents, and siblings, are now trying through legal means to achieve justice. They have powerful stories to tell in their own voices, but will not travel without me, their legal representative.”
Akbar was invited several months ago by Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) to participate in hearings before a House of Representatives subcommittee, but even he wasn't sure where the holdup was coming from.
"I don't know why the State Department has taken this action, but I think it's extremely important that when it comes to a national security matter like drone attacks, we hear not only from the proponents of these attacks, but also from the victims," Grayson said.
Akbar told The Guardian that he believes it's not necessarily the State Department, but another government agency, that may be blocking his entry. "We brought litigation, civil litigation and civil charges, against CIA officials in Pakistan for their role in drone strikes," he explained. "I think it's pretty clear that I have been blacklisted because of that."