Mwatana Releases Human Rights Documentary “Waiting for Justice” on civilian victims of US drones in Yemen

“Waiting for Justice” is a human rights documentary released by Mwatana Organization for Human Rights to shed light on civilian victims of US targeted killings conducted through drone strikes in Yemen. The documentary features narratives of civilian victims of US drone strikes and their families

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Thurs-(19 Jan 2017)- Press Release


“Waiting for Justice” is a human rights documentary released by Mwatana Organization for Human Rights to shed light on civilian victims of US targeted killings conducted through drone strikes in Yemen. The documentary features narratives of civilian victims of US drone strikes and their families.


The documentary “Waiting for Justice” tells stories of civilian victims of a double tab US drone strike that targeted a Toyota Land Cruiser vehicle, which was transporting suspected al-Qaeda militants. A double tab strike is when two shots are fired in rapid succession hitting the same target. Double tab strikes have used in both US drones operations as well as the Saudi led coalition’s operations in Yemen. The targeted vehicle was driving behind a Toyota Hilux vehicle that was transporting around 14 civilians who were mostly construction workers in addition to the driver. The distance between the two vehicles was approximately 20 to 30 meters. The workers were driving on al-Hazemya road from their villages in al-Sawma’ah district, al-Baidha governorate and were heading to work in al-Baidha city on Saturday 19 April 2014.

At around 6:00 am, a US drone targeted the militants’ vehicle with a double tab strike that killed the suspected militants. Shrapnel from the strike hit the civilians car and resulted in killing four of them: Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum (30 years old), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18 years old), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr (65 years old) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu. The strike also injured five civilian passengers: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35 years old), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22 years old) whose brother Sanad al-Khushum was killed by the same strike, in addition to Najib Hassan Nayef (35 years old), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40 years old) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20 years old).

In the human rights documentary “Waiting for Justice”, the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser, narrates the details of the double tab strike that caused him severe injuries in the abdomen and limps. He says that his injury has disabled him from work not to mention that the strike caused damage to his Hilux vehicle, which was his only source of income. In the film, Hussein Nasser al-Khushum also speaks of the suffering this US drone strike has caused.  Hussein lost both his son Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum and his relative Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr in this strike that also resulted in injuring his son, Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum. Similarly, Ali Abed Rabbo al-Azzani tells the story of how this strike killed his son Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani.

On 19 April 2014, the Yemen News Agency “Saba” confirmed that 10 militants from al-Qaeda were killed in this strike in addition to other civilian victims. The New York Times mentioned that American officials had declared that this strike was one of three that targeted some regions in South Yemen with the use of drones that are managed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). However, the CIA’s spokesperson refused to comment on the strike.

The stories told by the victims and their families in “Waiting for Justice” explain the way through which the Yemeni state dealt with the ramifications and losses caused by this strike. On the one hand, families of the victims as well as injured victims confirm that they do not know of any investigation carried out by the Yemeni state regarding this incident that caused harm to civilians. On the other hand, a tribal mediation with the Yemeni state has resulted in a tribal rule of 30 million Yemeni riyals (An equivalent of 139619 USD at that time) as compensation paid to each family of the killed victims. In addition, the tribal rule decided an amount of 15 million Yemeni riyals (an equivalent of 69810 USD at that time) to be paid as compensation to each of the injured victims in addition to covering medical cost. However, what happened eventually, according to a testimony by a victim’s family member, was that the state paid a total of 15 million Yemeni riyals (an equivalent of 69809 USD at that time) in addition to 30 Kalashnikovs to be all divided among the families of the 4 killed victims. The entire paid amount, according to testimonies of injured victims and killed victims’ families, was spent on covering some of the medical expenses needed for treatment of the surviving injured victims.

In the documentary, Ali Abed Rabbo al-Azzani, who lost his son Yasser in this strike, expresses the bitterness of loss and the misery his son’s death has caused. He adds that all what is left of his son is a few photographs and a pile of humble clothes. He also explains that his son’s death has left the family in need as Yasser was the family’s breadwinner and was killed on the way to work. Likewise, Hussein Nasser al-Khushum speaks about the burden his son’s death has left on his shoulder, especially that he is now responsible for his three grandsons, Sanad’s children, without any additional income.

Through the testimonies of civilian victims of a US drone strike, the 8 minute human rights documentary “Waiting for Justice”, attempts to stand as a reminder of scores of civilian victims in Yemen who are still waiting for justice and recognition.

The United States of America has been conducting targeted killings through drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 and they continue to take place until this day. These strikes target al-Qaeda suspects under the pretext of drones’ efficiency and its ability to avoid causing civilian harm. However, these strikes have resulted in killing and injuring scores of civilians in various regions in Yemen in addition to grave material loss.

Since September 2014, Yemen has been witnessing a series of armed conflicts that reached a peak on 26 March 2015 when a coalition of 9 states led by Saudi Arabia announced war on Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ansar Allah (Houthis) is an armed group that ceased power by force on 21 September 2014. Consequently, other armed groups opposing Ansar Allah began to form. All of this has resulted in a huge increase in the number of civilian victims of all warring sides involved in this war. Midst these armed conflicts, victims of drones have become even more overshadowed. For this reason, the documentary “Waiting for Justice” comes as a reminder of these victims in order to emphasize that conflicts may pile victims but they do not erase their existence or right to justice.

The story of the US double tab drone strike featured in “Waiting for Justice”, that killed and injured civilians in al-Sawma’ah district, al-Baidha governorate, is not the only story of this sort in Yemen. In a 2015 report titled “Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by US Targeted Killings in Yemen”, both Open Society Justice Initiative and Mwatana Organization for Human Rights documented 9 drone strikes incidents that caused harm to civilian victims in various regions in Yemen in the period between 17 May 2012 and 19 April 2014. Field research findings, documented in the report, show that 26 civilian victims including 1 pregnant woman and 5 children were killed as a result of US drone strikes that took place during the period covered by the report. Additionally, 13 civilians, including 5 children, were injured due to US drone strikes.

In addition to the 9 incidents documented in the report “Death by Drone” including the one incident from the report that is featured in the documentary “Waiting for Justice”, Mwatana Organization for Human Rights continued to investigate and conduct necessary field research in order to document cases where there were civilian victims of US drone strikes.

Field research findings showed that at around 6:00 pm on Friday 26 September 2014, a US drone strike targeted a vehicle that was transporting suspected al-Qaeda militants. Reuters said that the strike killed 2 al-Qaeda suspects.  The strike took place near Orfouj Qaid al-Marwani’s house in Aal Marwan, al-Khasaf village, al-Hazm District in al-Jawf governorate, northeast Yemen. The incident caused grave damage to Orfouj’s house and injured his three children. The first child Zeina al-Marwani, 7 years old, was injured with shrapnel in the lower part of the spine, pelvis and right thigh, which caused her complete paralysis. Due to the absence of decent health care, Zeina passed away on January 10, 2016. The second child Moe’ed al-Marwani, 12 years old, was injured with shrapnel in his right thigh and testicles. The shrapnel is still stable in his right thigh. The third child Sa’adah al-Marwani, 5 years old, was injured with shrapnel in her legs.

In her testimony, the three children’s mother explained that she was pregnant at the time of the strike. The incident caused her intense stress and fear that put her through severe complications throughout the rest of her pregnancy.

In an interview with the child Moe’ed al-Marwani, he said that the strike targeted a vehicle on the road parallel to their house. He added that he and his two sisters were injured with shrapnel while playing near the house. Moe’ed also spoke about the physical pain he still feels due to his injury in addition to the continuous anxiety he and other children in their village experience until this day each time they hear the sound of drones hovering.

Both Moe’ed and his mother spoke about the conditions of poverty they have been living under especially that the children’s father, the only provider for the family, passed away three months after the strike. Moe’ed points to the absence of basic services in their area and he adds that he and other children have been deprived from school as a result of the current ongoing war in Yemen.

The civilian victims’ testimonies as well as their families’ present a significant challenge to John Brennan’s description of the use of drones as “ethical”. Brennan, the director of the CIA and chief counterterrorism advisor to US president Barack Obama, stated in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on 1 May 2012 that “targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction” and that “one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.” He continued praising drones efficiency and described potential civilian harm as “collateral damage”. Praising drones efficiency came up also in a statement by the Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi during a visit to the US in September 2012. Hadi said that drones have a “zero margin of error”. He also added that: “the electronic brain’s precision is unmatched by the human brain”.

Victims’ testimonies’ as well as their families’ represent the essence of both the report “Death by Drone” and the documentary “Waiting for Justice”. These testimonies in addition to the testimonies Mwatana collected on al-Jawf’s incident pose critical questions on the precision of targets hit by US drones. These questions also come in light of president Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on 23 May 2013, a year after Brennan’s speech. Obama’s speech emphasized that they only: “target al Qaeda and its associated forces and even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained” and that America “does not take strikes when there is ability to capture individual terrorists” adding that their preference is always to “detain, interrogate, and prosecute.” Obama added that America uses the highest standards before any strike is taken so that: “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” This contradicts dramatically with the documented incidents as well as the testimonies collected from civilian victims of US drone strikes and their families.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order that was released on the official website of the White House on 1 July 2016 under the title “United States Policy on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force”. The text includes a number of orders that obligate the US to apply revision and investigation regarding civilian victims. It also obligates the US to investigate the credibility of information provided by agencies, partner governments and nongovernmental organizations in order to minimize future incidents that could harm civilians. The order also obligates the American government to take responsibility for civilian victims, offer condolences and financial compensation to the injured and families of the killed.

The executive order, issued by president Obama, obligates the director of the national intelligence or any employee assigned by the president for the same purpose to release an annual publicly disclosed report that must include the number of US strikes against any terrorist targets in noncombat areas. Furthermore, the executive order states its consistency with the US commitments to the International Law. . “Waiting for Justice” is released one day before president Obama officially leaves office as a reminder of the US obligations and responsibilities for civilian victims of US drone strikes.

Within the same context, a statement on armed drones, signed by 44 civil society organizations from 14 countries including Mwatana, was presented to the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. The statement pointed to the executive order issued by president Obama. Yet, the statement expressed the undersigned organizations’ concerns regarding grave ramifications of the continuity of states’ use of armed drones as well as acceptance and expansion of such operations. The statement also pointed to the significant damage drone strikes inflict upon communities they target. Such damage includes, death, injury, destruction of houses and infrastructure as well as ramifications on mental health.  The statement demanded states to work in partnership with international organizations and civil society to agree on the needed international procedure to eliminate and minimize the harm caused by armed drones at the time being and in the future in a way that stands against lawless practices.

The testimonies of the victims in the documentary “Waiting for Justice” and in the report “Death by Drone” as well as those that came out of the field research that followed the report hold skepticism in regards to the standards and procedures the US claims to follow before granting approval for drone strikes.  This comes especially under the proof that there are civilian victims between killed and injured in addition to material harm that civilians suffer from in various regions in Yemen and absent significant steps on the ground towards investigation, accountability and compensation.

The testimonies have also reflected a shared feeling by victims as well as their families where they feel marginalized as they live in impoverished areas that lack basic services. Drone strikes only add to the difficult life and the many burdens residents of such areas already suffer from with no serious steps towards compensation, accountability and putting an end to any future harm that may reach them.

Mwatana Organization for Human Rights reemphasizes a number of recommendations:

To the Government of the United States:
1.    Publicly disclose the full legal basis for US targeted killings, including those documented by Open Society Justice Initiative and Mwatana Organization for Human Rights.
2.    Publicly disclose the May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance relating to targeted killings, and clarify where it applies, when it took effect, and how it is enforced.
3.    Ensure that US targeted killings in Yemen comply with international law.
4.    Conduct effective investigations into all credible allegations of unlawful civilian casualties associated with US airstrikes in Yemen, including those documented by Open Society Justice Initiative and Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, prosecute and impose disciplinary measures and/or other penalties where appropriate, and publicly disclose the findings.
5.    Publicly acknowledge the numbers and identities of civilians killed and injured by US airstrikes in Yemen as well as the criteria for determining civilian and non-civilian status.
6.    Create a formal mechanism by which civilians can seek and obtain prompt and meaningful reparations for civilian harm caused by US airstrikes.

To other governments that participated in US Targeted Killings:

1.    Publicly disclose policies, practices, and full legal basis for participation in US targeted killings, including but not limited to the context of intelligence sharing and hosting of US bases supporting targeted killing operations.
2.    Conduct effective investigations into credible allegations of unlawful participation in US targeted killings, prosecute and impose disciplinary measures and/or other penalties where appropriate, and publicly disclose the findings of said investigations.
3.    In cases where unlawful participation has occurred, provide prompt and meaningful reparations for civilian harm caused by US targeted killings.

To the United Nations Human Rights Council:
Create an independent international committee to investigate US drone strikes incidents that resulted in civilian victims.

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