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German court hearing on Yemen drone case

Manasi GopalakrishnanMay 27, 2015

A Cologne court is set to begin hearing a case regarding two Yemenis who were killed in a US drone attack in 2012. The complainants allege that Germany should not allow drone attacks to be steered from its territory.

MQ-9 Reaper Drohne Drohnenkrieg Ziel Drohnenangriff Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/AP/Air Force/L. Pratt

On August 29, 2012 a US drone fired five rockets over Khashamir in eastern Yemen, killing Salim bin Ali Jaber and Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber. The pair were in their village to attend a wedding.

The deaths sparked protests in the village, particularly since one of the dead, Salim bin Ali Jaber, was known to be a vocal opponent of al Qaeda - the purported target of US attacks.

The relatives of the dead persons, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, Ahmed Saeed bin Ali Jaber and Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber have subsequently filed a case against the German government, scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

The allegation against Germany

"The three complainants are requesting the German government to condemn the use of the US base in Ramstein for drone attacks in Yemen," said Judge Raphael Murmann-Suchan of the administrative tribunal in Cologne, where judges will hear lawyers' arguments in a case beginning Wednesday.

"The complainants allege that the airbase in Ramstein is being used, in different ways, for drone strikes in Yemen. First, the complainants claim that analysts evaluate position images of drones in Yemen and that data for controlling drones and shooting rockets is transferred from Ramstein to Yemen," Murmann-Suchan told DW.

Ramstein Air Base
Data for controlling the strikes is said to be transfered from Ramstein to YemenImage: picture alliance / AP Photo ir

Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a complainant in the case, alleges that "without Germany" his brother-in-law and nephew would have still been alive and that the "US would not have been able to fly drones over Yemen."

He claims his brother-in-law, Salim bin Ali Jaber had actually spoken to dissuade villagers from joining al Qaeda and had agreed to meet alleged members of the terror outfit to elaborate on his ideas against the terror group. "Salim had openly criticized al Qaeda shortly before his death," Faisal said in a statement on Reprieve's website, the organization that is representing his family in Cologne.

Making a government accountable for drone strikes

However, filing against a drone attack is not so easy. "Drone strikes per se are not illegal," said Stephen Sonnenberg, expert on international human rights and conflict resolution at Stanford Law School. "Under international law, drones are just another type of weapon...International law basically suggests that if drones are used in a context of war or an armed conflict, then the normal unchanged laws of armed conflict should apply," Sonnenberg told DW.

Germany's courts are willing to entertain such complaints as the current one, Sonnenberg said, elaborating on why the case had not been filed in the US. Even so, the plaintiffs have had to use a narrow interpretation of the law to make a valid request in the courts.

Lawyers fighting for the Bin Ali Jabers say that the German constitution, the Grundgesetz, and international law, oblige the German government to protect the lives and property of people and that this protection extends itself to other forms of support for drone attacks, Murmann-Suchan of the Cologne administrative tribunal explained.

The Bin Ali Jabers' lawyers could use different arguments to support their claims. For example, they could argue about whether the situation in Yemen could be described as an unarmed conflict with a policing situation, Sonnenberg said, adding that a policing situation would imply a stronger use of human rights laws, which prohibit the use of force more stringently.

Von US-Drohne zerstörtes Auto im Jemen
While drones often hit their target, there is also significant collateral damageImage: Reuters

"And that's where the lawyers will argue until they turn blue in the face, because in the US, even President Obama seems to be uncertain whether the authorization for the use of military force – which was passed after the September 11 attacks – whether those still apply to Yemen," he added.

"My family is not an enemy of the USA," Faisal bin Ali Jaber urged in his statement, adding that Washington should apologize if it agrees that the drone strike was a mistake. The Bin Ali Jabers have been waiting for Washington's response since the last two years.