Two civil rights groups filed a formal lawsuit Monday seeking to halt what they said was an illegal US government assassination order for Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, considered a dangerous terrorist by Washington.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed the court action, having had to seek special permission to represent him after he had been named a "specially designated global terrorist" by the US Treasury Department.
"The lawsuit aims to stop the US government from carrying out a 'targeted killing' far away from any armed conflict, without due process, and where there is not an imminent threat and lethal force is not necessary," the groups said in a statement.
The groups said that because he is not part of an armed conflict with the United States the targeted killing "amounts to the imposition of a death sentence without charge or trial." They also said the criteria for the death order were never disclosed.
"The United States cannot simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so," said Vince Warren, executive director of CCR.
"The law prohibits the government from killing without trial or conviction other than in the face of an imminent threat that leaves no time for deliberation or due process," Warren said. "That the government adds people to kill lists after a bureaucratic process and leaves them on the lists for months at a time flies in the face of the constitution and international law."
The lawsuit names US President Barack Obama, CIA director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and seeks an order to "prohibit the government from carrying out targeted killings outside of armed conflict except as a last resort to protect against concrete, specific, and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury."
The US government in July said Awlaki was a key leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, placing him on its list of terrorism supporters, freezing his financial assets and banning any transactions with him.
In April a US official said Obama's administration had authorized the targeted killing of Awlaki, after American intelligence agencies concluded the Muslim cleric was directly involved in anti-US plots.