Al-Awlaki family seeks justice for assassinations of family members
On July 19, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the al-Awlaki family against the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency for the summary executions of three U.S. citizens in Yemen.
Last September, Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki, and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, all U.S. citizens, were killed in Yemen by U.S. unmanned drone strikes. Al-Awlaki’s 17-year-old nephew also died in the same attack that killed his son, while the two youths were dining at a local restaurant.
None of the victims were convicted or even charged publicly with a crime prior to the drone strikes that took their lives, clearly an egregious violation of the most elementary rights allegedly afforded to all U.S. citizens.
“I never expected, you know, that a small boy who was born in America, who was a citizen of America, would be killed by the United States government, his own government,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, the grandfather of Anwar and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. (National Public Radio, July 19)
According to the ACLU lawsuit, the “killings rely on vague legal standards, a closed executive process and evidence never presented to the courts.”
ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer argued that by executing its own citizens without revealing the evidence in support of such actions, the Obama administration has directly violated the U.S. Constitution.
“We want the government to introduce whatever evidence it relied on to a court,” said Jaffer. “And a court can decide whether that evidence was sufficient to justify the government’s actions.” (National Public Radio, July 19)
As the United States has expanded its so-called “War on Terror” since 2001, CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces have carried out unmanned drone strikes with increasing frequency, intensity and impunity all over Asia and Africa, most notably in officially declared war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in regions outside zones of officially declared armed conflict such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the Philippines.
The program, initiated under the Bush administration, has increased markedly during President Obama’s tenure. In May, dozens of Obama administration officials interviewed by The New York Times revealed that the president directly oversees a so-called “kill list,” through which he can directly designate suspects for “kill or capture” and authorize the Pentagon and the CIA to carry out related drone strikes. (The New York Times, May 29)
While the ACLU lawsuit could potentially limit the scope of the use of drone-strike executions, the legal avenues to pursue the issue are severely constrained by the U.S. legal system. The Obama administration could, for example, assert the State Secrets Privilege to conceal the details of drone strikes on the grounds that exposing evidence in court could endanger national security. It is to be expected that the lawsuit will encounter a myriad of such legal obstacles, likely limiting its effectiveness if not derailing it entirely.