NEW YORK—German officials are trying to whitewash the country’s role in a U.S. drone strike that killed an innocent Somalian herdsman, the Open Society Justice Initiative said today.
Lawyers backed by the organization filed an appeal today against German prosecutors who have refused to investigate the strike, launched in 2012 with crucial support from two U.S. military bases in Germany. In June this year, the prosecutors said they would not pursue a criminal complaint lodged on behalf of the herdsman’s son.
“With only a cursory review, prosecutors blindly accepted that their government didn’t know about the U.S. strikes and bear no responsibility for attacks operated from German soil,” said Amrit Singh, a senior lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“That’s a troubling precedent to set at a time when the Trump administration has ratcheted up the number of drone attacks. Instead of enabling lawless drone killings, European states should be preventing them.”
The strike was reportedly not directed at the herdsman who died, but at British-born Mohamed Sakr, a suspected member of the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab, also killed in the attack. Neither the German nor the U.S. government has officially acknowledged the incident.
Lawyers representing the herdsman’s son filed a criminal complaint before the state prosecutor of Zweibrücken in September 2015, calling for a criminal investigation into the killing of the two men.
The complaint asserted that German officials are jointly responsible for the deaths of the two men because Germany hosts two U.S. military facilities indispensable for planning and operating drone strikes in Africa: the U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein, which plays a crucial role in conducting U.S. drone operations worldwide, and the U.S. military’s African command headquarters (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart, which is responsible for all military operations in Africa.
On May 29, 2017, the Stuttgart prosecutor’s office refused to investigate the role of AFRICOM in the drone strike. On June 13, 2017, the Zweibrücken prosecutor declined to investigate the role of the U.S. base at Ramstein.
The prosecutors claimed that there were insufficient indications that a criminal act had been committed. They asserted that the German government did not have a duty to prevent illegal criminal acts by states who had authority to use facilities on German soil. With respect to the criminal liability of U.S. personnel, prosecutors argued that it was up to the United States to prosecute them under the applicable NATO Status of Forces Agreement.
The German lawyers who filed the criminal complaint sought and obtained the investigative files of the prosecutors of Zweibrücken and Stuttgart relating to this case.
Lawyer Natalie von Wistinghausen said: “The grounds for appeal are abundantly clear. It is evident from the investigative files that neither prosecutor conducted an effective investigation in this case.”
The appeal also argues that the Untied States’ so-called “global war on terrorism” is not justifiable under German law and that the German government has a duty to prevent any U.S. military action under that category that is supported from German territory.
Lawyer Eberhard Kempf said: “Contrary to what the prosecutors held, the German government had sufficient knowledge about the use of its territory to launch these unlawful drone strikes and a legal duty to prevent this killing. We hope these decisions will be reversed upon appeal.”
The Open Society Justice Initiative is part of the Open Society Foundations, the largest private funder of human rights work around the world. Its previous litigation on national security–related abuses has included winning judgments from the European Court against Poland and Macedonia for cooperating with secret torture and rendition by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. The Justice Initiative has published Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen, detailing civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes carried out between 2012 and 2014.