Court Refuses To Rule On Legality Of Extra-Judicial Killings By Drones
Above: Abdurhman Anwar al-Awlaki killed by a drone strike authorized by President Obama.
Court Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging U.S. Drone Killings of Three Americans
U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer: “In this delicate area of warmaking, national security, and foreign relations, the judiciary has an exceedingly limited role. This Court is not equipped to question, and does not make a finding concerning, Defendants’ actions in dealing with AQAP generally or Anwar Al- Aulaqi in particular.”
April 4, 2014, Washington – A federal district court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the targeted killing of three American citizens by U.S. drones in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the case on behalf of the families of Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Samir Khan, and Al-Aulaqi’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman.
Plaintiff Nasser Al-Aulaqi, the father of Anwar and grandfather of Abdulrahman, said, “I am deeply disappointed by the judge’s decision and in the American justice system. What I am asking is simply for the government to account to a court its killings of my American son and grandson, and for the court to decide if those killings were lawful. Like any parent or grandparent would, I want answers from the government when it decides to take life, but all I have got so far is secrecy and a refusal even to explain.”
In May, the Obama administration publicly acknowledged responsibility for the killings, but the Justice Department continued to argue in court that national security concerns bar any judicial review of the government’s actions. In response to this broad claim, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer stated at oral argument that “the executive is not an effective check on the executive,” and in her opinion, she rejected the government’s argument that the case presented a “political question” that prevented the judiciary from hearing it at all. Nonetheless, she dismissed the case.
Said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Attorney Maria LaHood, “Judge Collyer effectively convicted Anwar Al-Aulaqi posthumously based on the government’s own say-so, and found that the constitutional rights of 16-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi and Samir Khan weren’t violated because the government didn’t target them. It seems there’s no remedy if the government intended to kill you, and no remedy if it didn’t. This decision is a true travesty of justice for our constitutional democracy, and for all victims of the U.S. government’s unlawful killings.”
Said ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi, one of the attorneys who argued the case, “This is a deeply troubling decision that treats the government’s allegations as proof while refusing to allow those allegations to be tested in court. The court’s view that it cannot provide a remedy for extrajudicial killings when the government claims to be at war, even far from any battlefield, is profoundly at odds with the Constitution. It is precisely when individual liberties are under such grave threat that we need the courts to act to defend them. In holding that violations of U.S. citizens’ right to life cannot be heard in a federal courtroom, the court abdicated its constitutional role.”
The case, Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta,was filed in July 2012 and argued in July 2013. It names as defendants former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; former CIA Director David Petraeus; Adm. William H. McRaven, Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command; and Gen. Joseph Votel, Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.
In 2010, following press reports that the U.S. government had put Anwar Al-Aulaqi on government “kill lists,” CCR and the ACLU filed their previous lawsuit representing Nasser Al-Aulaqi challenging the government’s authority to kill his son. The court dismissed that case on the grounds that Nasser Al-Aulaqi did not have legal standing to challenge the targeting of his son and that the request for before-the-fact judicial review raised “political questions” not appropriate for the court to decide.
Click here to read Friday’s opinion.
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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.