Killing Soleimani Was a 'Violation of National and International Law,' Former Nuremberg War Crimes Prosecutor Says

The U.S. strike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani flouted both national and international law, according to a former lawyer who helped prosecute Nazi leaders at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials.

Benjamin B. Ferencz, 99, wrote to The New York Times this week expressing his opposition to the drone strike that killed Soleimani and several others outside Baghdad International Airport earlier this month.

In a letter to the Times, Ferencz—who arrived in the U.S. as a child immigrant from Romanian-occupied Hungary in 1921—said he "cannot remain silent" on Soleimani's "immoral" assassination.

"I have felt obliged to repay the United States for the opportunities given to me," he explained. "I was an American combat soldier in World War II, and was proud to serve my country as the chief prosecutor in a war crimes trial at Nuremberg against Nazi leaders who murdered millions of innocent men, women and children."

But he suggested the current administration is undermining, rather than upholding, international law. "The administration recently announced that, on orders of the president, the United States had 'taken out' (which really means 'murdered') an important military leader of a country with which we were not at war," he wrote.

"As a Harvard Law School graduate who has written extensively on the subject, I view such immoral action as a clear violation of national and international law."

The killing touched off a week of high tensions between Washington and Tehran, during which time Iran launched ballistic missiles against American troops in Iraq, accidentally shot down a passenger jet outside Tehran and announced it would no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Soleimani was the head of Iran's Quds Force, a unit within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for foreign and covert operations.

He was credited with developing Iran's military strategy abroad for two decades, helping extend its influence across the Middle East and direct Tehran's involvement in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Soleimani was considered the second most powerful man in Iran.

President Donald Trump and his senior aides argued that the assassination was necessary to stop imminent attacks on Americans in the Middle East. The president said last week that Soleimani was plotting attacks on four American embassies, but neither Trump nor his senior officials have provided any evidence to support the assertion.

On Sunday, Trump even appeared to dismiss any legal requirement to explain his actions, writing on Twitter that the justification "doesn't really matter because of his horrible past!"

Experts have said the Iran crisis shows Trump's disdain for—or understanding of—international law. Indeed, as the U.S. awaited Iranian retaliation, the president even threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites and respond in a "disproportionate manner" to any provocation, both of which would be war crimes.

"The public is entitled to know the truth," Ferencz wrote to the Times. "The United Nations Charter, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague are all being bypassed."

"In this cyberspace world, young people everywhere are in mortal danger unless we change the hearts and minds of those who seem to prefer war to law."

A senior administration official told Newsweek, "As commander in chief, the president has the constitutional authority to use force to protect and defend our nation and our forces."

"The strike against Soleimani was authorized by the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), under which the president may use force to defend against threats emanating from Iraq."

"This action was fully vetted within the administration and was deemed appropriate and lawful," the official added. "Soleimani was an enemy combatant in the process of planning attacks in the near future against U.S. personnel and citizens."

This article has been updated to include comment from a senior administration official.

Qassem Soleimani, Iran, assassination, international law
Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic republic's capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty