U.S. Drone Obliterates Civilians in Yemen

by Jon Queally for Common Dreams, 4/19/14

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A Yemen military official on Saturday says that at least fifteen people were either killed or wounded when a missile from a U.S. drone struck vehicles traveling on a road in the central province of al-Bayda.

Among the dead, according reports, are what the official claimed were targeted al-Qaeda militants traveling in two vehicles and also non-targeted passers-by traveling on the same road when the powerful U.S. bomb hit.

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A pickup truck that was allegedly hit by a US drone in the al-Bayda province. (Photograph: Stringer/EPA)

According to Reuters, “tribal sources said a drone had been circling al-Bayda for days and on Saturday struck two cars the suspected militants were in. Three civilians who happened to be in a nearby car were also killed, they said.”

A security source told Reuters that the missile “targeted cars that suspected al Qaeda militants were in and killed 13 of them.”

The Associated Press, however, reports that a “Yemeni official” said nine of the victims in the attack were militants while at least six were “innocent civilians.”

The discrepancy in the early reporting does nothing to erase the fact that none of those killed in the bombing were given the opportunity to defend themselves or declare their innocence before being obliterated by what is assumed to be a U.S. Air Force drone operator controlling the aircraft from thousands of miles away.

Yemen is among a handful of countries where the US acknowledges using drones to wage war against militants linked to al-Qaeda, though it continues to comment on the practice that critics say is both an affront to human rights and international law.

As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, Yemenis say the constant threat of U.S. drones buzzing overhead and the fear of being caught up in an airstrike is not only a form of ‘psychological torture’ but it is actually making the security situation in Yemen worse, not better.

“Entire communities are being killed off and families are being torn apart,” said Rooj Alwazir, an anti-drone organizer based in Yemen. “Many people are living in constant fear because they could be next, creating widespread and long-term psychological torture. Many young boys are afraid to gather and children stop going to school and families stop gathering.”

“As a result,” she added, “the drone program fails to achieve their purpose. Instead of keeping the U.S. and Yemenis safe they end up breeding animosity and tearing apart the social fabric of some of the poorest and marginalized communities in the world.”

And in a feature-lenth article for Rolling Stone this month, journalist Vivan Salama reports on “Death From Above: How American Drone Strikes Are Devastating Yemen.”

According to Salama, the mystery of who is and who is not targeted by “the American planes that shoot” (as one young girl described the drones) is central to the U.S. targeted killing campaign that is devastating the country:

For the people here who have no ties to Al Qaeda or any militant groups, the constant stress of the drone threat has warped long-standing cultural norms. Mothers are increasingly keeping their children home from school or forbidding them from going to mosque for fear that they might be handed a DVD or SIM card containing propaganda or information linking to Al Qaeda. Just the mere possession of Al Qaeda propaganda or an accidental run-in with a suspected militant is enough, locals believe, to be deemed a legitimate target for the drones. “We don’t know who is with Al Qaeda,” says Oum Saeed, a middle-aged mother of ten, “but the drones know.”

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CA: Drone Protestors Demand Trial by Jury

The following article was the front-page story in the March 29 Sacramento Bee newspaper

(Randall Benton/ Sacramento Bee) John Kerr of Bay Point, Contra Costa County, prepares signs for a protest last Tuesday near the Wheatland gate to Beale Air Force Base. Activists oppose the U.S. government’s use of unarmed surveillance drones based and operated at Beale.

(Randall Benton/ Sacramento Bee)
John Kerr of Bay Point, Contra Costa County, prepares signs for a protest last Tuesday near the Wheatland gate to Beale Air Force Base. Activists oppose the U.S. government’s use of unarmed surveillance drones based and operated at Beale.

By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton

Before dawn on Tuesday, Shirley Osgood and her colleagues manned their posts outside the Wheatland gate to Beale Air Force Base east of Marysville.

In a ritual they have followed for nearly four years, they crisscrossed the four-way intersection near the gate, laying out the tools of their trade: anti-war banners, an American flag with a peace symbol instead of 50 white stars, a series of cardboard squares adorned with bright purple, battery-powered LED lights that spelled out the message “No Drones.”

“It’s hard to see you guys when you cross the road,” the driver of a pickup truck headed into Beale shouted at them through the dark. “Be careful.”

That could be their mantra: Be careful while you break the law.

They have been demonstrating since 2010 against unarmed surveillance drones based and operated at Beale that are used to pinpoint targets for armed killer drones in war zones and elsewhere overseas.

The protesters run the gamut from ministers and rabbis to longtime peace activists and military veterans.

At least 18 have been arrested for trespassing since Oct. 30, 2012, some more than once. One was an 88-year-old Lutheran minister, arrested nearly three weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, who was also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran – he served on the honor guard aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, where the treaty was signed marking Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.

“I call it divine obedience,” the minister, Jerry Pedersen, said in a recent interview at his South Land Park home. “I’m not breaking the law, I’m following the law that’s written in our hearts.”

The federal government has a different point of view, and has begun filing misdemeanor charges of unauthorized penetration of a military installation. The charge carries the potential of up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000, although federal prosecutors have assured judges they have no intention of trying to put any of the protesters behind bars.

But that is where the charity stops. The government has succeeded so far in persuading two judges to deny protesters jury trials, something the defendants contend deprives them of their Sixth Amendment rights and the chance to have their civil disobedience judged by their peers instead of the third branch of the federal government – the very establishment they are targeting.

Osgood, a retired social worker and 66-year-old grandmother from Grass Valley, is facing trial before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd, who will be hearing her pleas for a jury trial and the opportunity to present a “necessity defense” on Tuesday.

Despite arguments that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial, the federal government adamantly opposes a panel in these prosecutions.

“They are not entitled to a jury,” Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in an interview last week. “I understand that they are interested in maximum publicity for their cause, but we don’t have an interest in accommodating that.

“Our business is promoting respect for the law. We have tried to be as light-handed and reasonable as possible. But, in these cases, a jury is not an effective nor efficient use of our resources, or the court’s resources for that matter.”

Wagner argues, as do his assistant prosecutors in court, that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that defendants facing six months or less time in prison have no right to be judged by a jury.

“These defendants don’t qualify for special treatment just because they are motivated by ideology,” Wagner said.

Lawyers for the protesters and some constitutional experts dispute that, saying the right to be judged by your peers is a bedrock of the nation’s justice system.

“The (Supreme) Court has concluded, based on ‘historical practices,’ that trial courts may dispense with a jury when the maximum punishment is less than six months incarceration,” said Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and a nationally recognized expert in criminal procedure.

“That is a highly questionable conclusion,” added Chin, whose work has been cited twice in U.S. Supreme Court opinions. “The court has decided the Sixth Amendment doesn’t mean what it says, that it means something else.

“That’s highly dubious. One of the reasons we had a revolution was that some practices were not acceptable. A trial without a panel of the defendant’s peers was one of them.”

Arrests for a cause

The protesters have no illusions as to whether they are subject to arrest and prosecution. Some have gone out of their way to cross the base’s boundary with the intent of being arrested – a practice in civil disobedience, which has played a significant role in many social reforms.

Pedersen, the World War II veteran cited on Ash Wednesday, said he and others knelt in prayer on the other side of a white line painted across South Beale Road that marks the base border about 100 yards out from the gate. They were arrested, cited and released.

“My hope was always that I would be in jail on Easter Sunday, and they would have to announce at church, ‘Sorry, Dr. Pedersen is in jail,’ ” he said.

Among those cited with Pedersen was the Rev. Elizabeth Griswold, pastor of Sacramento’s Parkside Community Church, who said protesters carried white crosses adorned with the images of children reportedly killed in drone attacks.

“We basically trespassed onto the base,” Griswold, 35, said. “We all just walked across and knelt down.”

The unabashed goal of the protests is to draw attention to the demonstrators’ ardent belief that U.S. drones, a much-used weapon in the Obama administration’s war on terror, kill more innocent people, including children, than bona fide terrorists. They also insist that, for every terrorist killed, the drone strikes, which have stirred strong negative passions worldwide, create an untold number of new American enemies.

The administration has consistently defended the use of drones to combat terrorists and says every effort is made to limit civilian casualties.

The protests are designed to be nonviolent and follow a regular script. Word of a planned demonstration goes up on the Internet and the more adventurous members of the group show up for an afternoon protest, then camp overnight in tents, sleeping bags or “habitats” that fit the rear compartments of the many Toyota Priuses in evidence.

Around 5 a.m., they move to a location for the morning’s action, which for last Tuesday’s demonstration was just down the way from the Wheatland gate, where hundreds of vehicles carrying military and civilian personnel converge on the four-way stop at South Beale and Ostrom roads.

Typically, the protesters stand at the side of the road waving their placards, banners and signs and flashing the peace sign to uniformed airmen driving in for their morning shifts.

Sometimes a group will intentionally march toward the gate and step over the white line, sparking a polite but firm response from Air Force security personnel, who detain and fingerprint the protesters, then cite and release them.

Protesters say the military personnel have been solicitous at times, warning them to be careful when particularly cold weather is on its way, but officials at Beale said they would have no comment about the ongoing demonstrations.

“There’s really nothing to say,” said Msgt. Eric Petosky from Beale’s public affairs office. “We support the right to protest, but when protesters cross the base boundary, we cite them for trespassing and release them.” What’s happening in court, he added, “is a decision of the federal prosecutor.”

The protest ritual

Tuesday’s protest, held amid a cold, unrelenting breeze sweeping across the isolated plain where the base sits, was more confrontational than some others.

At about 6:30 a.m., the protesters launched what they refer to as a “soft blockade,” marching into the roadway and physically blocking cars from proceeding past the South Beale-Ostrom intersection and into the base.

This did not go over well with some morning commuters sitting in an ever-growing line of stopped vehicles while the activists blocked access to the base for more than 20 minutes.

Some vehicles and a school bus gave up and turned around. Some angry drivers, including two behind the wheels of large pickups, drove onto a shoulder of the road and, spitting gravel and squealing tires, roared around demonstrators standing within inches of their path.

“What makes this right?” bread truck driver Ray McDonald asked the group after he grew impatient and drove around other waiting vehicles and up to the picket line.

“Your bread is going to get there, you’re just going to be late,” a protester told him.

“My job is on the line,” countered McDonald, who said this was his first visit to the base from the Bay Area. “Is he going to believe me when I tell him what was going on?”

Within half an hour, three California Highway Patrol units rolled up and the officers had traffic moving again, with drivers staring straight ahead and expressionless as they passed the activists flashing the peace sign.

No one was arrested, and the CHP officers, veterans of the routine from past blockades, chatted pleasantly with members of the group until everybody packed up just before 8 a.m.

Barry Binks, a veteran from Sacramento who showed up in his Army field jacket with a peace sign stitched to the left shoulder, said some motorists are less understanding than others.

On one occasion he sustained a bloodied elbow when a car nicked him as it barreled past, he said. Another protester once ended up on the hood of a car that carried him about 100 feet down the road toward the base before it stopped and let him slide off.

The protesters shrug off such incidents, saying they are as devoted to their mission as the Beale workers are to theirs. And they maintain that giving up is not an option, even if they see no evidence that the government or much of the public is paying attention.

“Hard to say whether it makes any difference,” said Pamela Osgood, Shirley’s older sister. “I know for sure that not being here wouldn’t make a difference.”