Court dismisses claim of German complicity in Yemeni drone killings
A court in Cologne has dismissed a claim brought by three Yemenis accusing the German government of complicity in the deaths of civilians for allowing the US to relay drone data via Ramstein airbase.
In a groundbreaking case brought by Yemenis who lost relatives in a 2012 attack on their village, the claimants argued that it would not have been possible to fly drones over Yemen without the existence of Ramstein, a US military base in western Germany.
It was the first time that a court in a country lending military or technical support for the US drone programme allowed such a case to be heard.
But a judge at Cologne administrative court dismissed the case after listening to two hours of arguments from the claimants, their lawyer and lawyers for the German government.
She acknowledged the “plausibility” that the base had been used to carry out drone strikes – despite the US and German governments’ repeated claims to the contrary – but said the German government had no legal grounds on which to forbid the US from using Ramstein to do so.
“The German government is not obliged to prohibit the USA from using Ramstein airbase for the execution of drone attacks in Yemen,” said judge Hildeund Caspari-Wierzoch, adding that neither was it “politically realistic” to terminate the Ramstein contract with the US.
In a somewhat unusual move, she allowed the claimants to appeal, meaning the case could appear before a German court again within months.
In a written statement to the court, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who brought the claim along with his relatives Ahmed Saeed bin Ali Jaber and Khaled Mohmed Naser bin Ali Jaber, argued that his brother-in-law and nephew would still be alive but for Germany, as the US “would not have been able to fly drones over Yemen”.
The brother-in-law, Salim bin Ali Jaber, 43, and his son Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, a 26-year-old policeman, were killed in a drone strike while meeting representatives of al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula in the village of Khashamir on 29 August 2012.
Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who received $100,000 (£65,000) in what he has described as “blood money” from the US government following the attack, said he and his family still lived in constant fear of drone strikes.
“We never know when or whom they will attack, and why someone is considered to be a target. Therefore it’s impossible to know how to protect yourself or your family,” he said. “We kiss our loved ones goodnight every day, not knowing whether we will ever see them again. It’s as if we lived in a constant nightmare from which we cannot wake up.”
Stefan Sohm, a lawyer for the German defence ministry, argued that Germany could not be expected to act as “a global public prosecutor towards other sovereign states” and the German government was satisfied with the assurances it had received from the US government as recently as January that “no drones are commanded or controlled from Germany”.
Sönke Hilbrans, a lawyer for the claimants, argued that Ramstein – the largest US military base outside of the US – was the site of a satellite relay station that facilitated the connection of drone operators in the American southwest with drones in targeted countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a claim that is supported by experts and a former drone operator.
The international human rights organisations that supported the case expressed disappointment at the ruling but welcomed the fact that it had been brought at all.
Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve, said: “The door’s open only a crack, but that’s all we need. Our foot is firmly wedged to stop it from closing.
“It’s very positive that the court recognised that our concerns around Ramstein were plausible, that the case was admissable and took the rather unusual step for them to immediately allow us to appeal,” she said. “This is an important issue that has real relevance for Germany, and this is just the first step in a bigger process to help innocent people like Faisal and his family to live without being in constant fear of death by drones.”
Andreas Schüller, a representative of the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, said: “It’s very positive that the court acknowledged the role that Ramstein plays in the global drone war because that’s more than the official US position and that’s something that will have to be taken into account in future actions. Neither can it be denied by the German government in future that the relay station exists.”
Faisal bin Ali Jaber said in a statement issued through his lawyer: “Today’s hearing was a momentous occasion for drone victims. Of course, it is disappointing that we did not win. But the fact that – finally – our opinions are being expressed in court is a victory in itself. I am very pleased that we have been given permission to appeal: I will continue to place my faith in the law and German justice to keep me and my family safe.”