WASHINGTON: A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed against the US. government by the families of three American citizens killed by US drones in Yemen, saying senior officials cannot be held personally responsible for money damages for the act of conducting war.
The families of the three - including Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born militant Muslim cleric who had joined al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, and his teenage son - sued over their 2011 deaths in US drone strikes, arguing that the killings were illegal.
Judge Rosemary Collyer of the US District Court in Washington threw out the case, which had named as defendants former defence secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, former senior military commander and CIA chief David Petraeus and two other top military commanders.
“The question presented is whether federal officials can be held personally liable for their roles in drone strikes abroad that target and kill US citizens,” Collyer said in her opinion. “The question raises fundamental issues regarding constitutional principles, and it is not easy to answer.”
But the judge said she would grant the government’s motion to dismiss the case.
Collyer said that the officials named as defendants “must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the US Constitution when they intentionally target a US citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress. They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”
Awlaki’s US-born son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was 16 years old when he was killed. Also killed was Samir Khan, a naturalised US citizen who had moved to Yemen in 2009 and worked on Inspire, an English-language al Qaeda magazine.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, both based in New York, represented the families. They had argued that in killing American citizens, the government had violated fundamental rights under the US Constitution to due process and to be free from unreasonable seizure.
“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,” ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said. “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.”
Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Maria LaHood said the judge “effectively convicted” Anwar al-Awlaki “posthumously based solely on the government’s say-so.” LaHood said the judge also found that the constitutional rights of the son and of 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 US government’s unlawful killings,” LaHood added.
Collyer ruled that the families did not have a claim under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable seizures because the government did not seize or restrain the three who were killed.
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