As ordered by a high court in Pakistan, police in Islamabad launched a criminal investigation into former CIA station chief, Jonathan Bank, for charges of murder and conspiracy to kill in a drone strike in 2009. They also opened a similar investigation into former CIA legal counsel John Rizzo.
Kareem Khan’s teenage son, Zahinullah, and his brother, Asif Iqbal, were killed on December 31, 2009, in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan. Khan decided to pursue a case against those responsible for his family’s deaths in 2010.
A criminal registration document by Khan written in 2010 alleges, “One person, namely Jonathan [Bank], American national who is CIA’s Islamabad Station Chief, is responsible for the murder” of Khan’s son and brother. It accuses Bank of “running an illegal clandestine spying operation” in Pakistan but, specifically, North Waziristan, where the Pakistan Army has been “carrying out a military operation against militants.”
Also alleged is that Bank had a role in the CIA placing a GPS device on the home that was targeted by a drone strike, which killed Iqbal and Zahinullah.
“The launch of this investigation against those responsible for the deaths of my son and brother, and thousands of other civilian victims, supports our position that the CIA is committing acts of murder in Pakistan by killing innocent civilians with impunity,” Khan declared.
Shahzad Akbar, who is Khan’s attorney and a legal fellow with Reprieve, reacted, “Today’s decision marks a key turning point in Kareem Khan’s search for justice over the deaths of his brother and son. After four years of government attempts to block his case, Kareem may finally get the answers he deserves and the CIA may finally be held in some way accountable for the murders it has been carrying out on Pakistani soil.”
It was viewed as a huge victory for Khan in a struggle that has already spanned five years. But there was not much time for celebration, as Islamabad police indicated they want to have the case transferred to another jurisdiction—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.
Police officer Mohammad Nawaz told the Associated Press, “We registered this case on orders from the court but on Wednesday night we dropped it because that drone attack did not take place in our jurisdiction in Islamabad.” (However, the case was not dropped as AP reported because the police do not have the authority to drop a case. The court has the authority.)
“There is no legal justification for such a transfer,” Akbar argued. “The orders to strike Kareem’s family were given from the US Embassy in Islamabad and that’s where the investigation needs to be focused: on the CIA agents who sit behind embassy walls making life or death decisions as judge, jury and executioner. An investigation centered anywhere else is simply an attempt to subvert justice.”
Khan added, “I am disappointed that the Islamabad police seem eager to transfer the case to FATA where there is no police and when the culprits sit here in Islamabad. Nevertheless I will continue my legal struggle against continued injustice and will approach the judiciary again to bring the case back to Islamabad where it should be investigated.”
In fact, according to Reprieve, this jurisdictional issue was already settled by the court more than a year ago. The police officer was spreading misinformation. Akbar plans to make a formal accusation that this police officer was acting in bad faith when he spoke to press about the lawsuit being dropped.
Early April, an Islamabad High Court judge directed the police to register a murder and terrorism case against Bank and former CIA legal counsel John Rizzo for their role in the drone strike that killed Khan’s family. Authorities had failed to comply with court orders to register a case since June 6, 2014.
Islamabad Police Chief IGP Tahir Alam informed the court that authorities were reluctant to register a case because it could impact relations between Pakistan and the United States. However, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui was not persuaded and ordered a criminal case against CIA officials be submitted to the Office of the Registrar of the High Court.
There has been scant coverage by US establishment press of the alleged role Bank and others may have played in the deaths of Khan’s family.
Bank was named in the lawsuit in 2010. When his name was revealed in Pakistani media, the Washington Post followed the CIA’s request and did not name Bank in their report.
According to Chris Woods’ book, Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, the CIA alleged that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, had named him in retaliation for ISI chief, General Pasha, being put on trial in a US district court in Brooklyn for his alleged role in the Mumbai massacre. But President Barack Obama’s administration “filed papers with the court opposing on principle the naming of foreign government officials in such cases and Pasha was able to visit Washington unimpeded on at least four occasions throughout 2011.”
“In fact, Jonathan Bank had been in Islamabad for over a year under his own name when he was “outed,” with his identity known not only to top ranking Pakistani military, intelligence and administration figures but also to senior diplomats of other nations,” Woods noted.
Akbar may have obtained the name of Bank from Pakistani military or an intelligence source, but he refuses to share details of how he uncovered Bank’ identity.
As described by Woods, this lawsuit by Khan was the idea of Christopher Rogers, who is with the non-governmental organization, CIVIC. The organization produced the “first major field examination of US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” which covered “more than six years of bombings,” in September 2010. Nine drone strikes were analyzed. It inspired Rogers to hire Akbar and find someone who had been a victim of a drone strike, who would be willing to go after the CIA.
“When I filed against the CIA,” Khan recalled, “Everyone even in Pakistan labelled us as crazies or mad people. Asking, ‘How could you sue the CIA?’ Nothing can come of it.”
As pointed out by VICE News’ Jason Leopold, “Bank is now back at the CIA, and has been named deputy chief for counterintelligence at the Counter Terrorism Center, the division that oversees and conducts drone strikes.”
Akbar has championed Khan as an example of someone who has chosen to try and force the legal system to work for him rather than turn to violence and seek revenge for what happened to his family. He believes the US government should be supportive of his effort to win justice for Khan, but, in 2011, the US government tried to prevent Akbar from speaking at Columbia University about drone strikes by denying him a visa.
Khan was mysteriously captured and disappeared in February 2014, just days before he was to go before British parliament and tell his story. He reappeared on February 14 after being “interrogated, beaten and tortured.” At least fifteen men, eight in police uniforms, chained him and asked him repeatedly about “investigations into drone strikes, his knowledge of drone strike victims and his work advocating on their behalf.”
Like with cases of torture, where the US government has strong-armed governments to protect CIA officials from accountability, the US government has undoubtedly done the same here. Pakistani authorities will continue to face pressure, as they have already, to conjure ways to circumvent or sidestep the legal process so that CIA officials do not have to face criminal charges for their role in drone strikes.