Detroit court pressed to order U.S. evacuation of Yemen

Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

Detroit — Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Council on American-Islamic Relations faced off Wednesday in federal court on the question of an emergency evacuation of U.S. citizens from war-torn Yemen.

Arguments from both sides were held before U.S. District Court Judge Sean F. Cox based on a lawsuit filed by CAIR on April 9 on behalf of 37 stranded Americans, including 23 children.

The government has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit based on a number of issues, including national security, the potential involvement of the U.S. military in a volatile situation and the argument that the district court does not have the authority to order an evacuation.

The government believes there are about 55,000 U.S. citizens currently in Yemen.

U.S. attorney Vesper Mai described the situation in Yemen as “unfortunate and unstable” but noted that while there was no formal evacuation of Americans at this time, the U.S. has helped at least 1,500 U.S. citizens leave Yemen via ship or through third-party governments in recent months.

In April, the State Department said in an official travel warning that “there are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time.”

The department said it was encouraging citizens to shelter in secure locations until they were able to depart safely — via commercial transportation options when available.

At that time, U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke stated that citizens trapped in Yemen were there because they had ignored warnings from the government.

“No one knows what the situation on the ground is or will be,” Mai said. “It’s a balancing act: Is it safer for them to stay in place or to be evacuated? Should the U.S. military be involved? How do we know all U.S. citizens will be able to get out of the country?”

Mai noted the U.S. government had previously declined to evacuate citizens from the Central African Republic and Syria during times of war.

“This is a foreign policy matter that should not be decided by the court,” Mai said. “The court should respect the opinion of the executive branch and the U.S. military.”

CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas said the government has a legal obligation to evacuate U.S. citizens “when they are in danger.”

“Congress itself directed the Secretary of State to develop policies to evacuate U.S. citizens, especially when their lives are in danger,” Abbas said.“The executive branch has abrogated its obligations in Yemen where lives are in danger.”

Abbas argued the government did help citizens evacuate the Central African Republic and that the situation in war-torn Syria was not comparable with what was taking place in Yemen.

Abbas said there were no indications the involvement of the U.S. military was needed. He also noted that while the situation was sensitive, “any action ever taken by the U.S. government involves foreign policy.”

“The court can order Secretary of State to order the evacuation,” Abbas said.

Outside of the courtroom Abbas also noted the U.S. government had evacuated citizens during the civil war in Lebanon.

On May 15, a U.S. House of Representatives Committee approved an amendment by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, that asked President Barack Obama to use “all of his available authorities” to evacuate Americans and nationals from Yemen “as soon as possible.”

The amendment, which is attached to the proposed 2016 defense budget, next goes to the full House for consideration.

“My constituents are looking for a safe route to come home,” said Dingell in an earlier interview and whose district includes a large Yemeni-American community. “We should not advocate for any action that would put American troops or additional personnel in harm’s way. We are simply asking the administration to make every possible effort to safely evacuate U.S. citizens.

Dingell noted that China, Ethiopia, India and Russia have taken steps to evacuate their citizens. The U.S. pulled diplomats and security personnel out of Yemen earlier this year as Saudi Arabia ramped up an air campaign targeting Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

The Houthis invaded Yemen’s capital last year and last month forced its president from the country.

Cox said he would consider the arguments and come to a decision “soon.”

TGreenwood@detroitnews.com

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