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Rescuers Reportedly Killed in US Drone Strike in Pakistan

At least fifteen people were killed in two drone strikes in Pakistan on January 2. While one strike killed a powerful Pakistan Taliban leader along with other known fighters, the other strike killed four people, whose names were not immediately known, and reportedly involved the targeting of rescuers—a war crime.

In the Associated Pressinitial story, it reported a drone strike “took place near Mir Ali, the main town of the North Waziristan tribal region. One missile hit a vehicle near the town, followed by another missile when people rushed to the vehicle to help people in the car.”

CNN also reported, “A drone fired a missile that struck the vehicle. It then fired two more missiles as people rushed to try to rescue the occupants, the officials said.”

This practice of targeting a site has become known as a “double tap” strike. The killing of rescuers is murder:

‘Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into this very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution. This is absolutely unlawful under IHRL and of course under domestic law in any place in which such an attack might occur. And illegal under US law,’ says Naz Modirzadeh, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University.

‘So then we don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.’

The murder of people there to provide emergency medical assistance to those wounded in attacks was highlighted in a report put together by clinics at Stanford and New York University and published in September 2012 called, “Living Under Drones.”

Pakistanis researchers talked to said they were aware of these “follow-up strikes” and they said they “discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue.”

“We and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes to [the location of the strike],” a father of four, who lost a leg in a drone strike, confessed. “We don’t know who [the victims] are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe.”

Those venturing out to “recover bodies,” according to journalist Noor Behram, know they are likely to be “killed or maimed.”

[W]hat America has tried to do is attack the rescue teams . . . . So now, what the tribals do, they don’t want many people going to the strike areas. Only three or four willing people who know that if they go, they are going to die, only they go in. . . . It has happened most of the times . . . [O]nce there has been a drone attack, people have gone in for rescue missions, and five or ten minutes after the drone attack, they attack the rescuers who are there.

Quite chilling is Hayatullah Ayoub Khan’s experience. He was driving between Dossali and Tal in North Waziristan when “a missile from a drone was fired at a car approximately three hundred meters in front of him.” The missile missed the car ahead of him but struck the road close enough to do “serious damage.”

Hayatullah stopped, got out of his own car, and slowly approached the wreckage, debating whether he should help the injured and risk being the victim of a follow-up strike. He stated that when he got close enough to see an arm moving inside the wrecked vehicle, someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike. He started to return to his car and a second missile hit the damaged car and killed whomever was still left inside. He told us that nearby villagers waited another twenty minutes before removing the bodies, which he said included the body of a teacher from Hayatullah’s village.

The practice is so barbaric and chilling that, according to one health professional, a humanitarian organization has a “policy to not go immediately [to a reported drone strike] because of follow up strikes. There is a six hour mandatory delay.’”

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “On more than a dozen occasions between 2009 and June 2011, the CIA attacked rescuers as they tried to retrieve the dead and injured. Although Taliban members were killed on almost every occasion, so too were civilians – many of whom the Bureau’s field investigators were able to name.”

One US official, Acting US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Hoagland, in October of last year denied that drone strikes in Pakistan have targeted civilian rescuers. He offered this denial during a meeting with a delegation of American peace activists. Beyond that, there have been no other statements by any US officials on this practice.

No legal justification for the killings of these people have been put forward. However, the New York Times reported Obama embraced a “disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” This policy operates under the presumption that anybody near suspected Al Qaeda operatives would be “up to no good.” Presumably, the Obama administration has adopted the twisted policy that anyone rescuing any wounded is aiding and abetting Al Qaeda and thus could be targeted.

Yesterday, a federal judge mostly dismissed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Times. The Times was seeking the legal basis for the targeted killing program while the ACLU was pursuing a more broader case and hoping to also force the release of records on “the process by which citizens can be designated for killings as well as the factual basis for the killings themselves.”

The judge found the government could keep the legal basis classified and concealed because it may be explicitly intertwined with military plans  or intelligence activities, sources or methods, which are all classified matters. Therefore, if there are any records that reflect whether agencies under the Obama administration find it legal to target rescuers, the government at this point is allowed to keep their legal justification secret.

Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has called on the US to “reveal the procedures, rules and legal opinions” underlying its use of drones. He has also said the US government did not give his predecessor a “satisfactory response when asked to clarify which aspects of international law it believes covers targeted killings.” And Heyns has said targeting rescuers is a war crime.

The reality is the Obama administration does not care who it kills or whether the program violates international humanitarian law. Charges that the program violates international humanitarian law mean nothing because it knows there is nothing any country or international body can or will do as a consequence to make operations impossible.

Agencies want wide latitude to conduct targeted killings of individuals, a number whom are put on a “kill list” with the same kind of dubious intelligence that landed hundreds of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay prison under President George W. Bush. The state-sanctioned murder of any civilians is all just collateral damage, a simple byproduct of the fight against terrorism.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."