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Baraa Shiban

One Yemeni man's journey for drone justice

Faisal Ben Ali Jaber is attempting to get justice from the German judiciary (Reprieve)

Date of publication: 5 June, 2015

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Faisal Ben Ali Jaber lost his brother-in-law and nephew to a US drone in 2012. He's now attempting to seek justice - wherever he can.

From Hadhramout, to Washington, to Germany: Faisal Ben Ali Jaber, a Yemeni environmental engineer, has travelled the world in search of justice and an end to the US drone attacks which killed his brother-in-law and nephew in 2012.

Last week, Faisal ‘s testimony was heard by a court in Cologne, Germany, highlighting the terrible impact of drone strikes on Yemeni families. The hearing shed some light on the little-known role that a US military base in the country plays in the drone attacks on Yemen and other neighbouring countries.

The critical role of Ramstein – a vast US military base in the south-west of Germany – was only recently revealed in a leaked top-secret US intelligence document that was published online. The document shows quite clearly how Ramstein is used by the US as a satellite relay station, ferrying data between the drone pilots in Nevada and the machines themselves as they fly in the skies of Yemen.

Put simply, Faisal believes that without Ramstein, the drones over Yemen would not fly. Without Ramstein, his relatives might still be alive today.

Those relatives – Salim, his brother-in-law, and Walid, his nephew – were killed in a US drone strike in August 2012. Salim, a local imam, had preached a bold Friday sermon, challenging al-Qaida and its ideologies in very clear terms. His family feared retribution from the group, and so Walid, a local policeman, started to accompany him for security.

Five days later, both Walid and Salim were killed when four missiles from a US drone hit the middle of their village.

For Faisal, who was in the village at the time to celebrate his son’s wedding, it was a life-changing moment. The death of his relatives was totally inexplicable to him, and utterly counter-productive: “in my brother-in-law, Salim, the US killed a crucial ally in the struggle against extremism”.

Faisal attended a drone conference held in Sanaa by the international human rights group, Reprieve, and told them about his case. He was determined to ask those in charge of the US drone programme why his relatives had been killed, and travelled to Washington with Reprieve in 2013 to meet representatives of the US Congress.

The meetings were powerful. Senior US politicians were left speechless at his tale, and many offered heartfelt condolences. For Faisal, this was an important first step. But many questions remained unanswered, and the US administration still refused to offer an official apology for the death of his relatives.

Last week’s hearing in Cologne was the latest stage of Faisal’s determined search for those answers. It was the first time that a court in Germany had listened to details of the role that US military bases on German soil play in the illegal drone war that carries on in the skies of Yemen and elsewhere. And it was the first time that a drone victim was able to tell a court just how terrible a toll drones take on the people of Yemen.

Although the court ruled against Faisal, the judge took the rare decision to give him the immediate leave to appeal – allowing the case to be heard again by a higher court in the next few months.

“Many of my family and friends doubted that I could find justice in Germany,” said Faisal, “but the fact that there has even been a hearing is an important first step. All I want to achieve is to stop any more innocent people dying like Walid and Salim. The decision to give me leave to appeal only makes me more confident that the German courts will ultimately make that goal come true.”

Baraa Shiban is Reprieve's coordinator in Yemen.

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