12 Mar 2012

UK accused of ‘assisting’ covert CIA drone strikes

Lawyers working for human rights group Reprieve launch formal proceedings against the government over claims the UK is “helping” the US carry out covert drone strikes in Pakistan.

UK accused of 'assisting' covert CIA drone strikes. (Getty)

London-based charity Reprieve and law firm Leigh Day & Co are filing papers to the high court claiming that civilian staff at GCHQ, Britain’s chief electronic listening post, could be liable as “secondary parties to murder” for providing “locational intelligence” to the CIA’s drone programme in Pakistan.

The two groups are acting on behalf of Noor Khan, 27, a Pakistani whose father was killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in March 2011 while attending a gathering of elders. More than 40 other people were killed in that attack, they said.

Reprieve Legal Director Cori Crider told Channel 4 News the CIA’s drone programme involves “unlawful killing”.

She explained: “Any British involvement may make [the UK] government an accessory to the criminal offence of murder. It also leaves GCHQ staff vulnerable to criminal prosecution, where they provide intelligence used to carry out an illegal attack.

“The families of drone victims are frustrated by the secrecy and misinformation surrounding the death of their loved ones.

It leaves GCHQ staff vulnerable to criminal prosecution, where they provide intelligence used to carry out an illegal attack. Cori Crider

“Forcing the UK government to acknowledge its role in the illegal programme is the first step in a long journey towards justice.”

Lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who is acting on behalf of many of these families, hopes the legal challenge will lead to “accountability and transparency in the drone programme and eventually help victim families seek justice”.

He told Channel 4 News: “Noor Khan is one of our clients here in Pakistan and with Reprieve’s help we have been able to instruct Leigh Day to file in UK.”

The Foreign Office and GCHQ declined to comment on the legal action. British officials have never commented publicly on US drone activity.

Since 2004, CIA drones have targeted suspected militants with missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal regions, killing hundreds of people. The programme is controversial because of questions about its legality, the number of civilians it has killed, and its impact on Pakistan’s sovereignty.

US officials do not publicly acknowledge the covert drone programme but they have said privately that the strikes harm very few innocents and are key to weakening al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Leigh Day & Co claims that GCHQ staff may be guilty of war crimes by passing along detailed intelligence to a drone programme that violates international humanitarian law.