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Peshawar High Court Rules US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Are Illegal, Comprise War Crimes

In a remarkable ruling (pdf), the Peshawar High Court has ruled that US drone strikes carried out within Pakistan are illegal, that they are war crimes and that they must be stopped immediately. The court also directed Pakistan’s military to intervene should drones enter Pakistan air space.

As described by Alice Ross at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, this ruling comes in a case brought by the son of one of the tribal elders killed in the March 17, 2011 drone strike that killed as many as 40 innocent elders gathered to discuss mineral rights:

The judgment applies to a lengthy case against the CIA brought by the Foundation for Fundamental Rights on behalf of Noor Khan, a tribesman whose father was among dozens of civilians killed in a drone strike on a gathering of tribal elders on March 17 2011. Last year, Noor Khan also attempted to bring legal action against the UK government for providing information that could lead to deaths in drone strikes, in a case backed by legal charity Reprieve. The attempt was refused but he is appealing.

Lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who argued the Peshawar case, said: ‘It is a landmark judgment: drone victims in Waziristan will now get some justice after a long wait. This ruling will also prove to be a test for the new government as if drones continue and government fails to act, it will run the risk of contempt of court.’

The Independent described the case and ruling further:

In what activists said was an historic decision, the Peshawar High Court issued the verdict against the strikes by CIA-operated spy planes in response to four petitions that contended the attacks killed civilians and caused “collateral damage”.

Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan, who headed a two-judge bench that heard the petitions, ruled the drone strikes were illegal, inhumane and a violation of the UN charter on human rights. The court said the strikes must be declared a war crime as they killed innocent people.

“The government of Pakistan must ensure that no drone strike takes place in the future,” the court said, according to the Press Trust of India. It asked Pakistan’s foreign ministry to table a resolution against the American attacks in the UN.

“If the US vetoes the resolution, then the country should think about breaking diplomatic ties with the US,” the judgment said.

For more background on the Peshawar High Court itself, this web page describes its jurisdiction and also has links to its history and other relevant information.

The ruling itself runs 22 pages. It begins by reciting the facts and requests provided by the petitioners to the court (emphasis added): Read more

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

Rendering Opinions on Rendering Detainees out of Iraq

This is going to be a really weedy post trying to explore what was going on with just about the only named opinion that Jack Goldsmith wrote at OLC that has gotten focused attention–a March 19, 2004 one cataloging the protected status of different kinds of people captured in Iraq. I will return to the significance of it in a future post. But this post shows that the topic of Goldsmith’s opinion appears to have been debated up until the time he left DOJ–and after he left, another opinion served to authorize the rendition of detainees from Iraq.

Addington objects to Goldsmith’s decision that Iraqi terrorists have protection under Geneva Convention

As Goldsmith wrote in Terror Presidency, this issue is one of the first he dealt with after he became OLC head in October 2003.

“Jack,” Gonzales said after cursory congratulations on my new post, “we need you to decide whether the Fourth Geneva Convention protects terrorists in Iraq. We need the answer as soon as possible, no later than the end of the week,” he added in his deadpan, nasally Texas drawl. (32)

After Goldsmith concluded in October 2003 that Iraqi members of al Qaeda were protected under the Geneva Convention, David Addington went apeshit.

“They’re going to be really mad,” [Patrick] Philbin told me as he and I were driving from the Justice Department to the White House to explain to Gonzales and Addington why the department that Iraqi terrorists were protected. “They’re not going to understand our decision. They’ve never been told ‘no’.”

Philbin was right.

“Jack, I don’t see how terrorists who violate the laws of war can get the protections of the laws of war,” said Gonzales, calmly, from his customary wing chair in his West Wing office.

[snip]

“The President has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections,” [Addington] barked. “You cannot question his decision.” (41)

Goldsmith went on to develop his oral advice into a formal opinion. And while he drafted that on March 19, 2004, he never finalized it.

Debate over detainee status between June and October

Now, as I’ll show below, the memo (or what was explained to be the memo) caused a bit of a firestorm in October 2004. But before that happened, the OLC Vaughn index shows, there appear to have been several rounds of discussion on the issue.

While the Vaughn index doesn’t list the March 19 version of this memo, it appears to show what might have been a June 29, 2004 version addressing the same topic.

This is a ten-page draft, from OLC to CIA. It is confirming legal advice, which was initially given orally, on whether a detainee is considered a protected person if involved in counterterrorism acitivies and captured.

Only this June 29, 2004 memo is 10 pages, whereas the March 19 memo is 23 pages.

Then, the following day, there is what may be CIA’s comments on that draft (with one additional page and hand-written notes), though this description doesn’t mention protected status.

This is an eleven-page document with handwriten comments, from the CIA to OLC, commenting on a draft letter regarding terrorism and interrogation of detainees.

On July 2, the same day Scott Muller wrote Jim Comey to tell him what had been approved after he and John Bellinger left a principals meeting discussing the interrogation of one particular detainee, CIA sent a second short memo describing the CIA securing custody of a detainee.

This is a two-page memo with a fax coversheet, providing legal advice regarding the CIA securing custody of a detainee and use of interrogation methods.

On July 14, three days before Goldsmith’s accelerated departure (remember, he originally intended to stay until August 6, but left on July 17 instead), there are nine copies (documents 50-58) of a one-page OLC memo written to the record (that is, not sent to the CIA per se) addressing whether a captured member of “a terrorist network” is legally protected.

This is a one-page OLC memo on whether a captured member of a terrorist network is legally protected under international law.

The number of copies written to the record suggests there may have been a face-to-face meeting on the subject after which the copies of the draft discussion were retained by OLC.

On July 15 (two days before Goldsmith left), there is a 5-page memo on the same subject.

This is a five-page OLC memo on whether a captured member of a terrorist network is legally protected under international law.

On July 21 (four days after Goldsmith’s departure), there is a 10 or 11-page document plus fax cover sheet from the White House to DOJ.

This is a ten-page document with handwritten marginalia and a fax cover sheet, which contains pre-decisional communication regarding detainees, that was sent from the EOP to the DOJ.

This is the only document in this set written by the White House.

After the White House document (which may or may not relate to the protected status of detainees) the dated OLC communication in the Vaughn Index consists exclusively of advice about torture techniques for several months.

Then, on October 4, there are a 4-page and a 5-page OLC memo written to the record “from OLC regarding application of international law, as it relates to detainees.”

Read more

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.