German Court Overturns Law Allowing Hijacked Airliners to Be Shot Down

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 16, 2006

BERLIN, Feb. 15 -- Germany's highest court overturned a law Wednesday that had authorized the government to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, ruling that it was unconstitutional to sacrifice the lives of passengers to protect potential targets of a terrorist attack.

German lawmakers had approved the law giving the defense minister the power to order strikes on hijacked planes in 2003, after a mentally disturbed pilot threatened to crash a small plane into the tower of the European Central Bank and other landmarks in Frankfurt. The law was challenged by opponents who argued that the constitution forbids the military from endangering the lives of German citizens or exercising domestic police powers.

Although European nations bolstered air security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States, they have struggled for years to coordinate their laws and policies when it comes to dealing with hijacked airliners.

In some countries, such as Sweden, it is forbidden to shoot down a civilian plane under any circumstances. Others rely on neighboring countries or NATO forces to patrol their skies and respond to potential terrorists. Security officials say the contradictory rules make it inherently difficult to respond to a hijacking on a continent where planes can cross the airspace of multiple countries in a matter of minutes.

German lawmakers from the ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union, said they would try to amend the constitution to revive the law, but many other members of Germany's coalition government are opposed to that. Changing the constitution would require a two-thirds vote by Parliament.

"We must now examine the question of how we can establish the legal principles so that the citizens are protected from terrorist acts in the air," Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said in response to the verdict.

Supporters of the law said they would push to change the constitution before Germany hosts the World Cup soccer championship in June. Lawmakers are also debating whether it is legal -- or advisable -- to have military forces assist with overall security measures for the World Cup.

Andreas Hotes, a Berlin security analyst and director of aviation for Rand Europe, a unit of the U.S.-based Rand Corp. research organization, said the high court ruling did not resolve the overall question of how Germany should respond to hijackings. He said lawmakers should amend the constitution, if necessary, to put a clear policy in place.

"We need a decision," he said. "When you have a hijacked aircraft now, what do you do? If you know a plane has been hijacked and it is going to crash into a target, do we really want to say we can't shoot it down? They can't leave things vague, that's for sure."

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