Shahzad Akbar on the right (photo: Shahzad Akbar)

Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who sued the United States government over family members of civilian victims of US drone attacks, was invited to participate in an upcoming International Drone Summit in Washington, DC, on April 28, but, the peace group CODEPINK reports the US is refusing to grant him a visa.

The refusal by the US government is just further indication that Akbar is being prevented from entering because he is behind a lawsuit against the US government’s use of drones in Pakistan. Back in June 2011, Akbar reported the State Department prevented him from “traveling to the United States to participate in a conference hosted by the human rights program at Columbia University law school in New York City.”

Akbar wrote then:

I have been granted US visas before and no reason was given by the state department for refusal on this occasion: despite repeated enquiries, we were merely told there was a “problem” with my application. If seeking justice through the law – instead of violence – is the reason for banning my travel, then mine is another story of how government measures in the name of “national security” have gone too far.

Although I have previously held consultancies with USAID, and helped the FBI investigate a terrorism case involving a Pakistani diplomat, my relationship with the US government changed dramatically in 2010, when I decided to take on the case of Karim Khan. Karim Khan was away from home on New Year’s Eve 2009 when two missiles fired from what we believe was a CIA-operated drone struck his family home in North Waziristan and killed his son, aged 18, and his brother, aged 35. Informed over the phone of their deaths, he rushed back to find his home destroyed and his brother’s family – now a widow and two-year-old son – devastated.

Akbar boldly took on Khan’s case, which not only sought $500 million for the death of his son and brother but also included a demand to halt drone attacks in Pakistan. In December 2010, “submitted a legal notice,” according to CNN, to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Islamabad’s CIA station chief, Jonathan Banks and other US officials.

The case was taken on by Akbar because strikes like the one that hit Khan’s family were (and continue) to kill innocent civilians. They also violate international law “by ignoring the ban on targeted killings and assassinations away from a battlefield.”

Akbar condemned the government’s denial of his visa in a press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR):

“Denying a visa to people like me is denying Americans their right to know what the U.S. government and its intelligence community are doing to children, women and other civilians in this part of the world,” Akbar said. “The CIA, which operates the drones in Pakistan, does not want anyone challenging their killing spree. But the American people should have the right to know.”

CCR noted he had actually never received a response on whether his visa application was approved or not in May 2011. And a year later Akbar is still waiting for the US Embassy in Islamabad to give him an explanation for why his application was held up.

The refusal to grant Akbar a visa is not dissimilar from the way the US government has used post-9/11 measures on the book to prevent scholars that are sharply critical of the US government from entering the US for conferences. As the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted in a report on scholars that had been kept out under by the administration of President George W. Bush, some of the scholars blocked from getting visas were:

Tariq Ramadan – In July 2004, an Islamic intellectual hired by the University of Notre Dame “for an endowed chair at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.” He shipped his belongings to South Bend, Indiana, only to find out his visa was canceled abruptly because, under the Patriot Act, anyone who “endorses or espouses terrorist activity” can be barred from entering the country. When a federal court ordered the government to provide a justification for the refusal in the fall of 2006, the US State Department tried to cast him as a “material supporter of terrorism” alleging his contributions to two European groups “providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians” were cause to keep him out.

Karim Meziane – In 2004, the physicist of the University of New Brunswick and Canadian citizen was turned away at the border when he was trying to enter the US to attend a research conference at the University of New Hampshire. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to Inside Higher Ed, told him why he was “persona non grata” and then he proved DHS was wrong. Meziane was born in Algeria, but other than that, there is no discernible reason why he would be denied. And to this day the US will give no explanation for the denial and rather than address the issue, when one of Canada’s biggest groups of professors tried to meet with the US ambassador to address what happened, the ambassador would not meet with the group.

Dora Maria Tellez – In 2005, the Sandinista revolutionary who helped to overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza was denied entry to take up a post as a Harvard professor. The State Department alleged she had been involved in “terrorism.” Tellez reacted, “I have no idea why they are refusing me a visa…I have been in the US many times before – on holidays, at conferences, on official business.” Writers and academics protested the ban. Days ago, President Bush appointed an intelligence chief that was known to have associations with the “dirty war” against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Vicente Verez-Bencomo – In November 2005, the Cuban scientist was to receive an award at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. He also was to speak at the Society for Glycobiology conference in Boston. But, the man who developed a “low-cost synthetic vaccine that prevents meningitis and pneumonia in children” was barred from entering the US. The State Department told him his entry would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Verez-Bencomo reacted, “That is really offensive to me…I wasn’t going there to talk about politics. I was going to talk about science.” At least they weren’t cryptic in their denial.

61 Cuban Scholars  - In October 2004, the Bush Administration refused to let the scholars participate in the  Latin American Studies Association’s “international congress” in Las Vegas. The Administration told the scholars letting them enter would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The move was part of the Administration’s effort to bring an end to the government of Fidel Castro. Dartmouth historian Marysa Navarro called the denial an attack on “one of the fundamental principles of academic life in the United States, freedom of inquiry,” and was reportedly told someone at the level of secretary of state or in the White House made the decision.

John Milios – In June 2006, the Marxist Greek professor, who was teaching political economy and the history of economic thought at the National Technical University in Athens, was denied entry to present a paper on “How Class Works” at a conference at the State University of New York. He had a visa that he had used five times and it did not expire until November. But, when he tried to enter to attend the conference, he was told  there were “technical problems” with his visa. Then, he was interrogated at JFK airport and asked about his views and political involvement in Greece. His visa was canceled and he was sent back to Greece.

Adam Habib – In October 2006, the professor of political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a known South african political commentator was detained at a New York airport. His visa was revoked. He was sent back to South Africa. He was to be a part of a delegation from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and would be meeting with officials from National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Bank, and scholars at both Columbia University and the City University of New York (where he earned his Ph.D.). But he was not allowed to participate. Three months later, his wife and children had their visas revoked too.

Riyadh Lafta – In April 2007, prominent Iraqi professor of medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University, in Baghdad, Iraq, was blocked from giving a lecture at the University of Washington and working on a research project on “increased rates of cancer among children in southern Iraq” when his visa was denied. Lafta was likely denied because he was “one of the principal authors of an October 2006 article in the British medical journal, The Lancet,” that produced a “controversy” when it estimated “more than 650,000 Iraqis” had been killed by the US invasion of Iraq.

*

Though it took a couple years for the Obama Administration to address the issue of foreign scholars having their visas canceled or revoked, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally ended the “exclusion” of Habib and Ramadan in March 2010. Thanks to the campaigning of the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the men obtained 10-year visas and planned to participate in various events and discussions in March.

Unfortunately, in February 2011, founding member of the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign, Omar Barghouti, was denied entry to tour the US for the release of a book on his work. And in March 2011, Afghan women’s rights activist Malalai Joya was planning to go on a US speaking tour and was denied a travel visa. The US embassy officer in Afghanistan said she was denied because she is “unemployed” and “lives underground.” Joya, a fierce critic of the Afghanistan war, called these what they were: “mere excuses.” She suspected the Afghan government told the US not to let her enter because she is “exposing the wrong policies of the US and its puppet regime at the international level.”

Just like with renditions, warrantless wiretapping, torture and due process rights for terror suspects, the Obama Administration appears to have engaged in a move that sets it apart from the most horrific policies of the Bush Administration, even though it is still willing to assert that such activities might be necessary in the “war on terror.” The Obama Administration might not deny scholars entry anymore but it will argue denial of visas for activists like Barghouti or Joya or lawyers like Akbar is acceptable (especially if no citizens or civil liberties groups challenge the Administration).

Whatever the Obama State Department might say, the denials are all ordered for similar reasons. The people wanting visas to enter the United States are critical of US policy and so they are denied entry. The ACLU calls this “ideological exclusion.” It is essentially “blacklisting.” Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquzz, Dario Fo, Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and former NATO Deputy Supreme Commander Nino Pasti were all at one point excluded for their writing, plays or outspokenness against US government policies.

The only threat the Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar poses is that he has spoken to people who have been victim of US drone attacks. He has the authority to speak about atrocities that have resulted in civilian deaths. And that is dangerous to the ability of America to project superpower and expand its dominance in southeast Asia. He could meet people at the International Drone Summit and inspire individuals (perhaps prominent ones) to launch campaigns against US drone use or US wars in general.

That is why freedom of inquiry must be obstructed by the State Department. That is why the Obama Administration will permit the State Department to operate like it did under the Bush Administration and prevent people from entering to participate in academic or political conferences.

It has nothing to do with terrorism. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse made up for activists and scholars who dare to oppose the US government. It is a fabrication to prevent Americans from hearing anyone, who can tell them the truth about US foreign policy and the country’s declared (and undeclared wars) of occupation, speak to them in person.