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Awlaqi killing reignites US debate on rights

(AFP) / 30 September 2011

WASHINGTON — The killing of US-born Al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi has renewed the debate over how far Washington can go in hunting down and assassinating alleged terror suspects who are American citizens.

Awlaqi, killed in Yemen with several other suspected militants, had been at the center of a court case filed last year challenging the US government’s right to target its own citizens for assassination which highlighted questions about constitutional rights.

Many US lawmakers and other Americans cheered the news of Awlaqi’s death, but civil rights backers said the case raises serious questions.

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and commentator, said there had been no effort to indict Awlaqi on any crimes and that there was “substantial doubt” about his involvement in any attacks against the US.

“He was simply ordered killed by the president: his judge, jury and executioner,” Greenwald wrote on Salon.com.

“What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the US government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process,” he added.

Last year, civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit on behalf of the cleric’s father, Nasser al-Awlaqi, saying it was unconstitutional for the CIA to order the death of an American citizen without due process.

A judge dismissed the case without ruling on the merit of the suit, saying he could not legally block the government from targeting Awlaqi, but said it raises serious constitutional issues.

“Can (the president) order the assassination of a US citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization?” US District Judge John Bates wrote in December.

In April 2010, a US official said President Barack Obama’s administration had taken the rare step of authorizing the targeted killing of Awlaqi, after US intelligence agencies linked him to attacks.

Ari Fleischer, who was spokesman for former president George W. Bush, said the action shows the need for aggressive actions in the fight on terrorism.

“I wonder if the Bush-violated-the-Constitution crowd will decry the killing of an American w

o a trial via drone??” he said in a Twitter message.

Despite the legal questions, many members of Congress hailed the killing of Awlaqi, who was born in New Mexico and became an Internet phenomenon by producing video and audio recordings in fluent English to lure Westerners into militant actions.

Republican Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called Awlaqi’s killing “a great success in our fight against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”

“For the past several years, al-Awlaqi has been more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been. The killing of al-Awlaqi is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community,” he said.

“He fueled hate against America, and we are safer because al-Awlaqi is dead. We must nevertheless continue our efforts to combat and discredit the violent Islamist ideology he espoused and disseminated,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins.

Last year, a group of US lawmakers unveiled legislation to strip Americans thought to have joined extremist groups like Al-Qaeda of their citizenship. But the effort was criticized by some who said this appeared to lack due process.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was previously CIA chief, told ABC News last year: “Awlaqi is a terrorist, and yes, he’s a US citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist and we’re going to treat him like a terrorist. We don’t have an assassination list, but I can tell you this, we have a terrorist list and he’s on it.”

Awlaqi, a charismatic preacher who spoke fluent English, was seen as having the unique ability to recruit Al-Qaeda operatives in the West.

US intelligence officials believe Awlaqi was linked to a US army major who allegedly shot dead 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, and to a Nigerian student accused of trying to blow up a US airliner on December 25, 2009.

He also was believed to have coordinated the 2010 plot to blow up cargo aircraft bound for the United States and had called for attacks against US and Arab governments across the world.

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