The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control today granted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights a license to represent accused terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen. According to news reports, Anwar Al-Awlaki has been placed on a CIA hit list for targeted assassination.
The civil liberties groups had earlier in the week sued the Treasury Department for making it illegal to provide free representation without a specific license.
The U.S. government has placed Al-Awlaki in the category of "specially designated global terrorist," due to his links to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That category is a legal cover for selective killings by U.S. Special Forces and also forbids any links to the individual, including legal counsel. The penalty for failure to abide by the restrictions is 20 years imprisonment and up to $1 million in fines.
At issue is both the constitutionality of the need for a license to represent U.S. citizens in such cases and the right of the government to target citizens for death without due process. CNN reports that "the ACLU and CCR issued a joint statement saying they "appreciate" the license, but "continue to believe (the Office of Foreign Assets Control) regulations are unconstitutional because they require lawyers who are providing uncompensated legal representation to seek the government's permission before challenging the constitutionality of the government's conduct."
The ACLU and CCR were retained by Anwar Al-Awlaki's father. The U.S.-born cleric is accused of involvement in both the failed Christmas plane bombing over Detroit and the spring killings at Fort Hood.
The license had been applied for on July 23. The suit was filed on Wednesday. Their legal brief says in part: "The notion that the government can compel a citizen to seek its permission before challenging the constitutionality of its actions in court is wholly foreign to our constitutional system, (and as) non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting civil liberties and human rights, Plaintiffs have a First Amendment (Fifth Amendment, and Separation of Powers) right to represent clients in litigation consistent with their organizational missions."
Al Jazeera reports that the White House denies civil liberties is at issue: Awlaki "is someone who has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a regional commander for that group in Yemen, has and continues to direct attacks there and, as we know, against innocent men, women and children in this country," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
At the heart of the debate is whether President Obama or any president has the right to act as judge, jury and executioner, away from a battle zone. As NPR blogger Frank James wrote, "While many Americans, if not most, have no empathy for the U.S.-born al-Awlaki, they are more than a little fond of the notion that the U.S. government is bound by the Constitution, even when the result isn't the preferred solution."
He asked, "Just how far can the U.S. government go in protecting its citizens? Is extrajudicial killings of its own citizens over the line or not?"
Many times over the last years, persons suspected of terrorist activities have been later found out to be not guilty. Lack of due process increases the chances that innocents may be killed, to say nothing of the morality of the death penalty itself.
The ACLU has a campaign to demand the Obama administration halt targeted killings. Click here to join it.
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