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Heckler & Koch fined over illegal arms for Mexico

Ben Knight Stuttgart
February 21, 2019

Two former staff members at the weapons manufacturer were given suspended sentences for violating Germany's War Weapons Control Act for their involvement in the delivery of machine guns to Mexico.

Protesters in Stuttgart
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Murat

The 10-month trial of former employees of Germany's biggest gun-maker, Heckler & Koch, ended in disappointment for arms trade opponents as former CEOs were acquitted for their part in the illegal sale of G36 assault rifles to Mexico between 2006 and 2009. Meanwhile, Marianne B. and Ingo S., employees with largely administrative duties, were found guilty.

A few boos rang out in the courtroom as Judge Frank Maurer read the verdict, especially as Peter B., a former CEO, was found not guilty. The executive, who was also H&K's main contact with government export authorities, was the most powerful of the defendants, none of whom showed a reaction as the verdict was read. 

The company Heckler & Koch was fined €3.7 million ($4.2 million), the approximate value of the guns at the time of their sale. That came as a welcome surprise to veteran anti-arms trade activist Jürgen Grässlin, who had initially pressed the charges and had expected a fine based only on the profits from the illegal sale. He said afterwards that the fine could exacerbate H&K's financial troubles.

In response to the verdict, H&K released a statement saying that the company would carefully assess the court's decision. "We can however not understand the Court's decision that we should not only forfeit the profit generated on the Mexico business [deal] but instead forfeit the entire sales price, despite the fact that none of the directors committed an offence," the statement read, before adding that the company had undergone a "rigorous transformation process" in the past years and "established new ethical standards." 

Decision-makers let off

In his two-hour reading of the verdict, the judge repeatedly underlined that the court was not there to judge the German arms industry itself, nor how the weapons were used in Mexico. "Whether an arms export is permitted is exclusively a political decision, not a legal one," he said.

The judge's narrow legal focus drew outrage from the gallery. After he dismissed what he called the "populist" argument that the small "executioners" were being condemned while the big decision-makers were being let go, Grässlin called out, "That's exactly how it is!" Afterwards, Grässlin called the verdict an example of "two-class justice," and said the trial had revealed how ineffective Germany's arms export controls are.

"From this verdict we see what a problem it is that in Germany we have no way of prosecuting a company," said former Left party MP Jan van Aken, who had kept a protocol of most of the trial. "So it's in the nature of the process that the bosses never leave a paper trail. It will also be very difficult to prosecute CEOs."

Read moreMexico fighting endless wars against cartels

The court found that Peter B. was neither aware of the illegal nature of the sales, nor did he exert improper influence on the content of the government's export permits by advising the company to exclude the four states that the government had human rights concerns about.

Testimony from the trial raises plenty of suspicion that officials from the Ministry of Economic Affairs advised the company on what it should and shouldn't put in the end-use declarations to get the exports approved. As van Aken put it: "All the witnesses said, 'We didn't suggest anything.' The firm said, 'The ministry suggested it.' The ministry said, 'The suggestion did not come from us.' I think they said, 'This and this and this can't be in there, bring us another end-use declaration.'"

The Economic Affairs Ministry official Claus W., called as a witness last July, said the ministry sees its basic role as supporting German firms. Claus W. admitted, in what van Aken said was the "key moment" of the trial, that once weapons leave the country, the government has little control over who they're used by, or for what. "As soon as an export has happened, you can't guarantee anything anymore," he testified. "Gone is gone."

Indeed, Claus W. even testified that the ministry deemed protecting H&K to be in the government's interest, since the company also supplies the German military. "To make sure the company can survive, export orders have to fill the gaps," he said.

Read more: Germany: Arms exports approvals down a quarter

Much of the judge's verdict was concerned with a Post-it note that read, "Guerrero has to be taken out" – attached to a printed email – apparently advising the company to take the state of Guerrero off the end-use declaration. Since the note was written by the secretary who was convicted, but apparently at the behest of CEO Peter B., the prosecution argued that this showed that B knew the state of Mexico was not allowed on the list.

The Iguala 43

The fact that the G36s were used in the Mexican states forbidden by the government is no longer disputed. Before the trial, a vigil was held outside the court for the victims of the 2014 massacre in Iguala, Guerrero. At least six teaching students were murdered by corrupt local police and mafia members, though 43 others disappeared and are thought to have executed during the night. Their bodies have never been found, and are thought to have been burned nearby.

During Thursday's demonstration, Carola Hausotter of a German-based Mexican human rights organization, read out a letter by Leonel Gutierrez Solano, brother of Aldo Gutierrez Solano, a student who has been in a coma since September 2014 after being shot in the head during the Iguala killings.

Last year, the court denied an application by Solano's family to testify as co-plaintiffs in the trial, "to show what consequences the sale of the weapons had." He also pointed out that no one in Mexico has been put on trial for the illegal sale of the weapons.

"We hope that the verdict will play a role in making sure that there will be no more violations of the law of this kind, and that weapons will no longer be exported to places where they're not meant to be," Solano wrote.

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight