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Drone Strike Suit Over U.S. Citizen Deaths Dismissed

American Islamic Militant Anwar Al-Awlaki
American Islamic militant Anwar Al-Awlaki stands for a portrait at the Dar al Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, in this October 4, 2001 file photo. Photographer: Tracy Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. officials can’t be held liable for the death of an American al-Qaeda leader killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, a federal judge ruled, saying the courts have to stay out of military decision making.

President Barack Obama has said the U.S. targeted and killed Anwar Al-Awlaki, an alleged terrorist and key leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen were killed in a Sept. 30, 2011, drone strike. Two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s teenage son was killed in a separate drone strike, in which he wasn’t a target.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington ruled yesterday that the judiciary must defer to Congress and the administration in national defense and military affairs.

“In this delicate area of war-making, national security, and foreign relations, the judiciary has an exceedingly limited role,” Collyer said.

The lawsuit was filed by Al-Awlaki’s father and the mother of Samir Khan, who was in the same vehicle as Al-Awlaki, according to the ruling. The relatives sought unspecified damages from former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, among other U.S. officials, for violation of the dead men’s constitutional rights.

‘No Remedy’

Maria LaHood, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the relatives, said the ruling was a travesty of justice.

“Judge Collyer effectively convicted Anwar Al-Awlaki posthumously based on the government’s say-so, and found that the constitutional rights of 16-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan weren’t violated because the government didn’t target them,” LaHood said in an e-mail, referring to Al-Awlaki’s son. “It seems there’s no remedy if the government intended to kill you, and no remedy if it didn’t.”

“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,” Hina Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the relatives, said in an e-mailed statement. “It is precisely when individual liberties are under such grave threat that we need the courts to act to defend them.”

‘Elastic Definition’

An investigation of six drone strikes in Yemen “strongly suggests” the U.S. targeted people who didn’t pose an imminent threat or weren’t directly involved in terrorist operations, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report last year in partnership with Amnesty International.

“The U.S. may be using an overly elastic definition of a fighter who may be lawfully attacked during an armed conflict,” according to the report.

Al-Awlaki’s son was killed by a strike in an open-air café near the town of Azzan in southern Yemen on Oct. 14, 2011, according to the ruling. A U.S. drone fired a missile at a person at or near the restaurant, intending to kill an Egyptian national who survived the attack, which killed at least seven others, according to the ruling.

The case is Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, 12-1192, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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