BERLIN/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The killing of Osama bin Laden when he was unarmed has raised concerns the United States may have gone too far in acting as policeman, judge and executioner of the world’s most wanted man.
But Attorney General Eric Holder, the No. 1 U.S. law enforcement officer, told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that the killing of the al Qaeda leader was legal.
“He was the head of al Qaeda, an organization that had conducted the attacks of September the 11th,” Holder said. “The operation against bin Laden was justified as an act of national self-defense.
“It’s lawful to target an enemy commander in the field. We did so, for instance, with regard to Yamamoto in World War II, when he was shot down in a plane,” Holder said.
Even if bin Laden had tried to surrender, “there would be a good basis on the part of those very brave Navy SEAL team members to do what they did in order to protect themselves and the other people who were in that building,” Holder said.
Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told German TV the operation could have incalculable consequences in the Arab world at a time of unrest there. “It was quite clearly a violation of international law.”
This was a view echoed by high-profile Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.
“It’s not justice. It’s a perversion of the term. Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them,” Robertson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television from London.
“This man has been subject to summary execution, and what is now appearing after a good deal of disinformation from the White House is it may well have been a cold-blooded assassination.”
Robertson said bin Laden should have stood trial, just as World War Two Nazis were tried at Nuremberg or former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague after his arrest in 2001.
“The last thing he wanted was to be put on trial, to be convicted and to end his life in a prison farm in upstate New York. What he wanted was exactly what he got — to be shot in mid-jihad and get a fast track to paradise and the Americans have given him that.”
Gert-Jan Knoops, a Dutch-based international law specialist, said bin Laden should have been arrested and extradited to the United States. “The Americans say they are at war with terrorism and can take out their opponents on the battlefield,” Knoops said. “But in a strictly formal sense, this argument does not stand up.”
A senior Muslim cleric in New Delhi, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, said U.S. troops could have easily captured bin Laden.
“America is promoting jungle rule everywhere, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Libya. People have remained silent for long but now it has crossed all limits.”
John Bellinger III, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a legal adviser to the Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, said killing bin Laden was lawful under both U.S. and international law.
“The U.S. government’s legal rationale will be similar to arguments used by both the Bush and Obama administration to justify drone strikes against other al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere,” he wrote in a post on the council’s website on Monday. “The Authorization to Use Military Force Act of September 18, 2001, authorizes the president to use ‘all necessary and appropriate force’ against persons who authorized, planned, or committed the 9/11 attacks.”
Bellinger also wrote that the killing was not prohibited by a U.S. executive order barring assassinations. “The executive branch will also argue that the action was permissible under international law both as a permissible use of force in the U.S. armed conflict with al Qaeda and as a legitimate action in self-defense, given that bin Laden was clearly planning additional attacks.”
For several Muslim leaders, the more unsettling issue was whether the al Qaeda leader’s burial at sea was contrary to Islamic practice.
His body was taken to an aircraft carrier where U.S. officials said it was buried at sea and in accordance with Islamic rites.
Saudi Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, an adviser to the Saudi Royal Court, said: “That is not the Islamic way. The Islamic way is to bury the person in land (if he has died on land) like all other people.”
Amidhan, a member of Indonesia’s Ulema Council (MUI), the highest Islamic authority in the world’s biggest Muslim society, said he was more concerned about the burial than the killing.
“Burying someone in the ocean needs an extraordinary situation. Is there one?,” he told Reuters.
“If the U.S. can’t explain that, then it appears just like dumping an animal and that means there is no respect for the man ... and what they did can incite more resentment among Osama’s supporters.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Longstreth in New York, Jeff Mason in Washington, Michael Perry in Sydney, Alistair Scrutton in New Delhi, Rebecca Conway in Islamabad, Olivia Rondonwu in Jakarta, Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Howard Goller