WASHINGTON: A US federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the government by the families of three American citizens killed by 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, as well as 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 the former defence secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, the 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 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 Centre for Constitutional Rights, both based in New York, represented the families. They had argued that in killing American citizens the government 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,” said ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi.
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. “Unmanned drones are functionally incapable of ‘seizing’ a person; they are designed to kill, not capture,” she wrote.
Nasser Al Awlaki, father of Anwar Al Awlaki, said he was disappointed in the American justice system and “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”.