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Was it legal for the US commandos to kill Osama bin Laden?

US legal analysts say the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan were acting within the full authority of both international and American law.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2011

US commandos killed Osama bin Laden in the compound (c.) in this satellite image, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden, was tracked down and shot to death at the compound by an elite team of US forces, but was it a legal move by the US?

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The Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan compound yesterday acted within the full authority of both international and domestic law, according to US legal analysts.

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As the operational leader of Al Qaeda in an ongoing conflict with the United States, Mr. bin Laden was a legitimate military target to be captured or killed at any time under the law of war, these analysts said.

“We could have killed him even if he was trying to run away. He was a lawful target,” said Scott Silliman, a law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University.

Rather than an unlawful assassination, the Navy SEALs’ assignment to “capture or kill” bin Laden was a fully authorized military mission. Bin Laden was a combatant in the war, as were members of the SEAL team.

“When all the layers are peeled away from a tactical perspective, the government did everything by the book,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

In 1996, bin Laden himself declared war on the US, issuing a religious decree authorizing the murder of American citizens wherever they might be found.

Congress responded after the 9/11 attacks with passage of the 2001 Authorization to use Military Force. The measure empowers the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, organizations, or individuals who played a role in the 9/11 attacks. The law was written specifically with bin Laden in mind.

In addition, Presidents Bush and Obama signed secret executive orders authorizing kill-or-capture missions by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military’s special forces.

Some denounce 'execution'

Although the US has received widespread support and praise for the bin Laden operation, a handful of critics are denouncing it as an unlawful “execution.”

These critics say bin Laden deserved the due process rights of a trial before facing capital punishment for his alleged crimes.

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