Amid the grim accounts of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes, the attack that killed Faisal bin Ali Jaber’s relatives has stood out.
On August 29, 2012, a drone flying above the Yemeni town of Khashamir launched four missiles at a group of five men standing near a vehicle on a remote mountainside. All of them perished. Three of the men were suspected al Qaeda militants, but the other two were Jaber’s relatives — his nephew Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber was a local police officer, and his brother-in-law Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber was a respected imam who days earlier had publicly denounced al Qaeda.
Their deaths triggered protests across Yemen. In the years since, Faisal has committed his life to finding answers — and justice — for his slain kin.
Earlier this week, the drone killings were the focal point of a historic lawsuit that was heard in a German courtroom. Though a panel of German judges dismissed the case on Wednesday, and the current security crisis in Yemen prevented Faisal from attending the proceedings, he and his attorneys consider their effort a victory, marking the first time Germany’s role in U.S. drone strikes has been acknowledged in court.
“One of the good things to come out of the decision that was taken by the judges is that an appeal is immediately available to us,” Faisal said in a phone interview. “So the path remains clear for us to continue challenging this case in the German courts.”
Faisal filed the suit along with two of his relatives in an administrative court in Cologne in 2014. The complaint, brought by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights as well as Reprieve, an international human rights group, alleged that by permitting the U.S. government to use its air base at Ramstein to facilitate drone strikes across the globe, Germany violated its constitutionally enshrined duty to preserve human life.
The suit called on the German government to extend right to life protections to the Yemeni plaintiffs who, the complaint alleged, live under a constant threat of extra-judicial killing made possible, in part, by the U.S. running counterterrorism operations — specifically drone strikes — out of Ramstein. As a classified document obtained by The Intercept and published in April confirmed, the sprawling air base in southwestern Germany serves as a crucial satellite relay station for so-called targeted killing operations carried out by U.S. forces around the world, including drone strikes in Yemen.
“Some people, perhaps some German people, may think that the story was really about who presses the button and perhaps Germany isn’t responsible for that,” Faisal said. “But actually, the infrastructure and what goes on behind the scenes to allow all of this to take place is crucial to the story. And the other side of the story is that innocent people are dying and suffering on a daily basis as a result of the drone program. And that’s what this case is aimed at — to help the German people understand that Ramstein plays a fundamental role in this process.”
In two hours of arguments from human rights lawyers and government attorneys, the court was presented with a range of proposals for protecting the Yemenis’ right to life, including the discontinuation of the contract that allows the U.S. military to operate the base in Germany. The judges were ultimately unconvinced that the court had the authority to discontinue the contract and noted that even if it did, the political challenges would be tremendous “because the cancellation would jeopardize many vital and authorized geopolitical and defense-related interests of the defendants.”
In the ruling dismissing the suit, judge Hildeund Caspari-Wierzoch added that “the German government is not obliged to prevent the United States from using the air base in Ramstein for executing drone strikes in Yemen.”
Kat Craig, one of the Reprieve attorneys representing the Jaber family, said the court’s decision was actually among the best outcomes the plaintiffs and their lawyers could have hoped for.
“I don’t think anybody was holding their breath about a low administrative court in Cologne deciding that the federal government had to shut down an air base that was run by the most powerful ally that they had,” Craig said. She added that the court did, however, stake out some key positions. “Significantly, they said our allegations regarding the use of Ramstein were plausible,” Craig noted. “That’s a far more robust statement than we’ve had from any institution in Germany to date.”
The court also affirmed that the plaintiffs had standing to file their complaint even though they are not German citizens and live outside Germany — thus rejecting a key argument put forward by government attorneys. Potentially paving the way for future litigation, Craig called the court’s position a “huge step forward.”
Faisal and his fellow plaintiffs have a month to file an appeal, and according to Craig, “absolutely” intend to do so.
Photo of Faisal bin Ali Jaber: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images