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Yemenis win in German court over US drone strikes

Court rules that Germany must ensure that US drones strikes controlled from airbase in the country comply with international law
A US drone strike in 2012 allegedly killed three Yemenis involved in the Germany court case (AFP)

The German government has partial responsibility for making sure that US drone strikes controlled from an airbase in the country comply with international law, a court ruled on Tuesday.

However, the court in Muenster stopped short of ordering that the US air base at Ramstein be banned from supporting drone operations.

The case was brought by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based NGO, on behalf of three Yemenis whose relatives were allegedly killed in a US drone strike in 2012.

A lower court had dismissed their case in 2015, concluding at the time that the German government had fulfilled its legal duties and was within its rights to balance them with "foreign and defence policy interests".

In a statement, the court said evidence suggests Ramstein in southern Germany plays "a central role" for the relay of flight control data used to fly armed drone over Yemen. It ordered the government to take steps to determine whether the operations are in line with international law and, if necessary, to press Washington to comply with it.

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The court added that “the question of whether international law permits the use of armed drones in Yemen isn't a political question but a legal question".

US drone strikes in Yemen have targeted suspected members of al-Qaeda.

However, the German judges said public statements by US officials cast doubt on whether the American drones are only targeting people who have a "continuous combat function" — a legal threshold meant to protect civilians who are associated with armed groups, but not fighting with them.

Andreas Schueller, a lawyer with the ECCHR, said the judgment was an important step toward placing limits on the drone programme carried out at Ramstein. "Germany must now face up to its responsibility for these strikes," he said.

In London, the legal NGO Reprieve said that the UK and other European states had been “put on notice” that they must cease being complicit in what it called an illegal drone programme.