WASHINGTON (CN) – Senior national security officials violated the Constitution and international law by authorizing the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in drone strikes in Yemen last year that killed the radical Muslim cleric and two other U.S. citizens, including al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, their families claim in Federal Court.
“At bottom, the case is very simple,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a press conference Wednesday morning. “The government has killed three people. It should account for its actions.”
The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit on behalf of relatives of al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, who was also killed in the 2011 drone strikes.
On Sept. 30, 2011, unmanned drones fired missiles that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other people, including Khan, in the northern province of Jawf. The United States killed al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and six others in a separate strike 200 miles away about two weeks later.
“The U.S. practice of ‘targeted killing’ has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including many hundreds of civilians,” the lawsuit states. “While some targeted killings have been carried out in the context of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many have taken place outside the context of armed conflict.”
The families say the killing of al-Awlaki, his son and Khan “violated fundamental rights afforded to all U.S. citizens, including the right not to be deprived of life without due process.”
“The current administration has said that due process doesn’t mean judicial process,” Jaffer said. “We couldn’t disagree more. We think the judiciary has a crucial role to play here.”
He likened the case to lawsuits that successfully challenged the government’s ability to detain Guantanamo Bay inmates indefinitely without due process.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the lawsuit was not intended to minimize the government’s allegations that al-Awlaki was part of the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. She said the goal was to require the government to present those allegations in court before taking the last-resort measure of killing a U.S. citizen.
“This case is an opportunity to present that evidence in court so it can be tested,” Shamsi said.
The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki’s father in 2010, before the radical cleric’s death, but a federal judge dismissed the case for lack of standing and said “courts are ill-equipped to make the types of complex policy judgments” needed to address the claims.
Lawyers for the civil rights groups said the current case is different, because more information has been made public since the earlier case was filed. The government will have a harder time invoking the state-secrets privilege, Jaffer said, as many senior officials have spoken about targeted killings.
The lawsuit also emphasizes that the killings took place off the battlefield.
“Outside the context of armed conflict, both the United States Constitution and international human rights law prohibit the use of lethal force unless, at the time it is applied, lethal force is a last resort to protect against a concrete, specific and imminent threat of death or serious physical injury,” the lawsuit states.
The families say none of the citizens killed presented a threat or was “directly participating in hostilities.”
“Defendants authorized and directed the strike even though there were means short of lethal force that could reasonably have been used to neutralize any threat that Anwar [al-Awlaki’s] activities may have presented,” the relatives claim.
They say the government “should have taken all feasible measures to protect bystanders” such as al-Awlaki’s son and Khan, who unlike Anwar al-Awlaki were not on the U.S. military’s “kill lists.”
Born in New Mexico, Anwar al-Awlaki had called for “jihad against the West” and had praised the actions of suspected terrorists, including Maj. Nadal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood.
Khan edited al-Qaida’s online jihadist magazine, according to the New York Times.
Plaintiffs seek damages for alleged violations of their First and Fifth Amendment rights and the Bill of Attainder’s ban on extrajudicial death warrants.
The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information Act requests in New York and Washington, D.C., to obtain more information about the drone killings. In those filings, Jaffer said, the government has not acknowledged its role in killing Anwar al-Awlaki. He said the question is not whether the citizens killed were guilty of crimes, but whether the government was justified in killing them without charging them with anything.
Defendants are Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; William McRaven, commander of the Special Operations Command; Joseph Votel, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command; and CIA Director David Petraeus.