German Court Weighs Law On Downing Hijacked Planes

November 7, 2005

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A law enabling Germany's defence minister to order the shooting down of a hijacked plane to avert a September 11-style attack will be challenged in the country's highest court this week.

Six private individuals, including a pilot, will argue that the state has no right to "sacrifice" passengers in order to save more lives on the ground.

"In no circumstances may the state protect a majority of its citizens by deliberately killing a minority of them," they argue in a submission to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, where eight judges will examine the air security law on Wednesday.

"A weighing of life against life, according to the benchmark of how many people might be affected on the one side and how many on the other, is unacceptable."

The government drafted the legislation two years ago in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, when al Qaeda hijackers crashed two planes into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.

A fourth hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania, killing all on board but no one on the ground, after the passengers overpowered the hijackers.

Debate in Germany intensified after a 31 year old pilot brought Frankfurt to a standstill in January 2003 by circling the city in a light aircraft and threatening to crash it into the European Central Bank tower. In July this year, a solo pilot crashed a light plane in front of Germany's parliament building in an apparent suicide.

The law says an errant plane can be shot down as a last resort, only when it is clear it is to be used as a weapon and there is no other way to prevent this.

President Horst Koehler reluctantly signed the law last January, while making clear he had doubts about it and would welcome a ruling from Karlsruhe.

In a new twist, Der Spiegel magazine reported that the government was rowing back on the eve of Wednesday's hearing.

It said Interior Minister Otto Schily had told the court in a written submission that the strict terms of the law "rule out the direct use of armed force against an airplane carrying uninvolved passengers, on the basis of any conceivable sequence of events".

That could mean that the authorities would contemplate shooting down a lone pilot of a renegade aircraft, but not a plane full of passengers.

The interior ministry declined to comment ahead of Schily's personal testimony before the court on Wednesday. The judges are expected to announce their ruling in several months.