An extrajudicial killing is the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process. Extrajudicial punishments are by their nature unlawful, since they bypass the due process of the legal jurisdiction in which they occur. Extrajudicial killings often target leading political, trade union, dissident, religious, and social figures and may be carried out by the state government or other state authorities like the armed forces and police.
Extrajudicial killings and death squads are common in the Middle East (mostly in Palestinian territories and Iraq), Central America, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, several nations or regions in Africa, Jamaica, Kosovo, parts of South America, allegedly Russia, Uzbekistan, parts of Thailand, Turkey, and in the Philippines. One early case of extrajudicial killings was in the Weimar Republic of Germany. One of the most recent issues regarding extrajudicial killing has been the debate about the legal and moral status of targeted killing by unmanned aerial vehicles by the United States.
During the Salvadoran civil war, death squads achieved notoriety when far-right vigilantes assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero for his social activism in March 1980. In December 1980, three American nuns, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clarke, and a lay worker, Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by a military unit later found to have been acting on specific orders. Death squads were instrumental in killing hundreds of peasants and activists, including such notable priests as Rutilio Grande. Because the death squads involved were found to have been soldiers of the Salvadoran military, which was receiving U.S. funding and training from American advisors during the Carter administration, these events prompted outrage in the U.S. and led to a temporary cutoff in military aid from the Reagan administration, although Death Squad activity stretched well into the Reagan years (1981–1989) as well.
Honduras also had death squads active through the 1980s, the most notorious of which was Battalion 316. Hundreds of people, including teachers, politicians and union bosses, were assassinated by government-backed forces. Battalion 316 received substantial support and training from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1953, a regime was installed through the efforts of the American CIA and the British MI6, in which the Shah (hereditary monarch) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi used SAVAK death squads (also trained by the CIA) to imprison, torture and/or kill hundreds of dissidents. After the 1979 revolution death squads were used to an even greater extent by the new Islamic regime. In 1983, the CIA gave one of Supreme Leader of Iran—Ayatollah Khomeini—information on KGB agents in Iran. This information was probably used. The Iranian regime later used death squads occasionally throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s; however by the 2000s it has appeared to almost entirely if not all cease their operation. This partial relaxation of Khomeini's harsh policies and subtle Westernization of the country can be seen paralleling similar events in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Northern Iraq beginning in the late 1990s.
Iraq was formed by the partition and domination of various tribal lands by the British in the early 20th century. Britain granted independence to Iraq in 1932, on the urging of King Faisal, though the British retained military bases and transit rights for their forces. King Ghazi of Iraq ruled as a figurehead after King Faisal's death in 1933, while undermined by attempted military coups, until his death in 1939. The United Kingdom invaded Iraq in 1941 (see Anglo-Iraqi War), for fear that the government of Rashid Ali al-Gaylani might cut oil supplies to Western nations, and because of his links to the Axis powers. A military occupation followed the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy, and the occupation ended on October 26, 1947. Iraq was left with a national government led from Baghdad made up of Sunni ethnicity in key positions of power, ruling over an ad-hoc nation splintered by tribal affiliations. This leadership used death squads and committed massacres in Iraq throughout the 20th century, culminating in the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
The country has since become increasingly partitioned following the Iraq War into three zones: a Kurdish ethnic zone to the north, a Sunni center and the Shia ethnic zone to the south. The secular Arab socialist Baathist leadership were replaced with a provisional and later constitutional government that included leadership roles for the Shia and Kurdish peoples of the nation. This paralleled the development of ethnic militias by the Shia, Sunni, and the Kurdish (Peshmerga).
There were death squads formed by members of every ethnicity. In the national capital of Baghdad some members of the now-Shia police department and army (and militia members posing as members of police or armed forces) formed unofficial, unsanctioned, but long-tolerated death squads. They possibly have links to the Interior Ministry and are popularly known as the 'black crows'. These groups operated night or day. They usually arrested people, then either tortured or killed  them.
The victims of these attacks were predominantly young males who had probably been suspected of being members of the Sunni insurgency. Agitators such as Abdul Razaq al-Na'as, Dr. Abdullateef al-Mayah, and Dr. Wissam Al-Hashimi have also been killed. These killings are not limited to only men; women and children have also been arrested and/or killed. Some of these killings have also been simple robberies or other criminal activities.
A feature in a May 2005 issue of the magazine of the New York Times claimed that the U.S. military had modelled the "Wolf Brigade", the Iraqi interior ministry police commandos, on the death squads used in the 1980s to crush the left-wing insurgency in El Salvador.
Western news organizations such as Time and People disassembled this by focusing on the aspects such as probable militia membership, religious ethnicity, as well as uniforms worn by these squads rather than stating the United States-backed Iraqi government had death squads active in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
The Mossad has been suspect for a series of extrajudicial assassination sometimes committed abroad with alleged complicity of other government officials. The organisation has recently been blamed for the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 49, a Hamas commander, in Dubai.
The Philippines has had its share of extrajudicial atrocities and related political violence as well, the most recent being the Maguindanao massacre in Mindanao (November 2009). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called the massacre the single deadliest event for journalists in history. Even prior to this, the CPJ had labeled the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists, second only to Iraq.
Soviet Union (Russia)
The former Soviet Union killed dissidents extrajudicially during the 1930s. Prior to the formation of the Soviet Union, the murder of The Grand Duchess Anastasia and her family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 became one of the most widely known extrajudical killings of the 20th century.
Reportedly thousands of extrajudicial killings occurred during the 2003 anti-drug effort of Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In 1990 Amnesty International published its first report on extrajudicial executions in Turkey. In the following years the problem became more serious. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey determined the following figures on extrajudicial executions in Turkey for the years 1991 to 2001:
In 2001 the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Ms. Asma Jahangir, presented a report on a visit to Turkey. The report presented details of killings of prisoners (26 September 1999, 10 prisoners killed in a prison in Ankara; 19 December 2000, an operation in 20 prisons launched throughout Turkey resulted in the death of 30 inmates and two gendarmes).
In 2008 the human rights organization Mazlum Der counted 25 extrajudicial killings in Turkey.
During the Irish war of independence in 1916–21, the British forces organised several secret assassination squads. In 1920 alone the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force murdered the mayors of Limerick and Cork cities. In Limerick, the replacement mayor was also murdered, while in Cork, the new mayor died after a 74-day hunger strike.
In Northern Ireland, various paramilitary groups and members of the British armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary killed without lawful excuse during The Troubles. During the 30 years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, both nationalist and loyalist paramilitary forces organised assassination squads. Notable cases include Brian Nelson, an Ulster Defence Association member and British Army agent convicted of sectarian murders.
Recently, concerns about targeted and sanctioned killings of non-Americans and American citizens in overseas "counter-terrorism" activities have been raised by lawyers and private citizens. On September 30, 2011 a drone strike in Yemen killed American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both individuals resided in Yemen at the time of their deaths. The executive order approving Al-Awlaki's death was issued by the Obama administration in 2010 and challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights in that year. The U.S. president issued an order, approved by the National Security Council, that Al-Awlaki's normal legal rights as a civilian should be suspended and his death should be imposed, as he was a threat to the United States. The reasons provided to the public for approval of the order were Al-Awlaki's links to the 2009 Fort Hood Massacre and the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot, the attempted destruction of a Detroit-bound passenger-plane. The following month, al-Awlaki's son was killed by mistake by another US drone strike.
The case of Anwar al-Awlaki points to the complexity of the government taking actions in the face of imminent or apparent threats from non-military aggressors otherwise difficult to contain or defeat. However, the assumption by the executive branch of powers otherwise reserved to the courts has proven troublesome to some. Laws in the U.S. continue to be reviewed and revised, and agents are purportedly monitored using a system of internal checks and balances coupled with citizens' advocacy groups, to minimize the possibility that government officials will exceed their lawful authority.
Some define extra-judicial killings more broadly than U.S. government sanctioned actions. For example, some Americans feel that the number of high-profile cases of killings, especially of black and Latino males, by law enforcement and other armed individuals in the U.S. are extrajudicial and reflect an epidemic problem. The contention that law enforcement officials are complicit in killings outside the bounds of law has persisted; for example, in 1934, a group of six law officers ambushed the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde, and opened fire with automatic weapons and shotguns. But it is difficult to stretch the modern concept of extra-judicial killing to this historical event.
Nguyễn Văn Lém (referred to as Captain Bay Lop) (died 1 February 1968 in Saigon) was a member of the Viet Cong who was summarily shot in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. The photograph of his death would become one of many anti-Vietnam War icons in the Western World.
Human rights groups
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