ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At 6 feet tall, human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar is a big man who cuts an imposing figure in the courtroom. Slightly balding with a thin goatee and black-framed glasses, his face curls into a canny grin when he dispenses wisecracks. At his office, he reads the news by hunting for motives behind the stories, a national pastime in Pakistan. In a country where people are used to the covert agreements and double dealings of those in power, maintaining an air of skepticism is the only way to find sure footing.
A general attitude of distrust has contributed to the confusion and rumors around U.S. drone bombings in Pakistan, a contentious issue about which everyone has an opinion and for which no one has the entire story. Because the attacks are wrapped in secrecy, narratives proliferate about the motives of the governments involved, the aims of the clandestine intelligence agencies that conduct the bombings, the true identities of those killed and whether participants are friends, foes or allies secretly in cahoots with one another. For the past five years, Akbar has been at the center of a legal battle over these attacks. Though not a household name, he is a controversial figure among the political class that shapes public conversation and policy in Pakistan. Once a consultant for the U.S. Agency of International Development and a diplomatic visa holder, he became persona non grata in the eyes of the U.S. government and found himself unable to travel to the United States after he began filing domestic and international lawsuits on behalf of people affected by drone attacks.