For the first time ever, a civilian survivor of a U.S. drone strike attended a hearing in U.S. court on Tuesday.
Faisal bin ali Jaber, a Yemeni environmental engineer who lost two innocent relatives to a 2012 covert drone strike, is seeking an official apology and declaration of error for the deaths of his brother-in-law, Salem, and nephew, Waleed. In September, three American ex-drone operators filed a legal brief supporting Jaber's claim.
Ahead of Tuesday's landmark hearing in Washington, D.C., Jaber wrote to President Barack Obama saying he would "happily drop the case in exchange for an apology" and acknowledgment that his relatives "were innocents, not terrorists."
As ABC News reported Tuesday:
Jaber claims that his relatives were given, through the Yemeni government, a bag containing $100,000 in U.S. currency in 2014 as compensation for the killing. But Jaber told ABC News that the U.S. has never acknowledged that it provided the money to his family.
Jaber said that an acknowledgment of responsibility for the deaths of his brother-in-law and nephew on part of the United States is more important to him than money. "Instead of paying money in a secret way, the U.S. could announce a project in his name carried out by members of civil society in support of the village that was hit," he said, adding that creating educational projects in the village could also help prevent young people from joining terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
"True accountability comes from owning up to our mistakes," he wrote to Obama.
Human rights group Reprieve, which is assisting Jaber in his case, noted that despite Obama recently "reaffirming his Executive Order to acknowledge and investigate civilian deaths by U.S. drones," as he vowed to do in July, the administration planned to argue Tuesday "that the U.S. courts have no business deciding whether strikes are lawful—even where war crimes are alleged."
"I will be in the courtroom as they make those arguments," Jaber wrote. "I cannot be elsewhere. Salem did not want to 'die silent.' I owe it to him to be his voice. He and Waleed deserve the same acknowledgement as Warren Weinstein and Giovanni LaPorto," he continued, referring to the American and Italian citizens killed in a 2015 strike whose families received a public apology from Obama last year.
"Their lives mattered just as much," Jaber said.
Furthermore, Reprieve warned: "If the Obama Administration wins with these arguments, it would give the Trump Administration remarkably free rein insofar as drone killing and the U.S. courts are concerned."
As Reprieve staff attorney Jennifer Gibson said: "President Obama is right to be worried about what a Trump Administration might do with his secret drone program. But if he is serious about bringing it out of the shadows, he must stop fighting against accountability. He must own up to the hundreds of civilians that even the most conservative estimates say the program has killed, and apologize to those that have lost their loved ones."
"Instead of fighting Faisal in court," Gibson added, "President Obama should simply apologize, admit his mistake, and devote the rest of his time in office to building true accountability into a program hidden in the shadows for too long."