German Responsibility For Those 43 Missing Mexican Students

Former employees from German gun company Heckler and Koch face charges in German court for illegal deals with Mexico. But were government officials complicit?

A protest in September against those responsible for the 43 missing students
A protest in September against those responsible for the 43 missing students
Tim Röhn

BERLIN â€" On Sept. 26, 2014, about 10,000 kilometers west of Germany, one of the most heinous crimes in memory was committed. Police in the Mexican university town of Ayotzinapa, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, shot dead six people, and kidnapped 43 others. Those 43 students remain missing to this day, and are widely believed to have been handed over to one of the Mexican drug cartels, and murdered.

At first glance, it may not be immediately clear how these events, which took place in a Latin American country ravaged by drug wars, are related to peacetime Germany. But they are. The Mexican police in Ayotzinapa had used G36 rifles, which are manufactured by Heckler & Koch in Germany.

These arms, produced in the southern German town of Oberndorf am Neckar, should have never even been exported to Mexico in the first place. Although Heckler & Koch was permitted to supply rifles to Mexico since 2006, it was prohibited from selling them to areas most affected by that country's ongoing drug wars, where even police officers collude with the Mexican mob. Places such as Guerrero.

Since 2010, German investigators have probed arms deals that took place with Mexico between 2006 and 2009. Up until last October, the district attorney in Stuttgart led the investigation into six employees of Heckler & Koch for allegedly breaching German arms exporting laws. A court last month ruled that the case could proceed.

HK G36 â€" Photo: Sonaz

This could be a fascinating case because it involves highly explosive and politically charged topics. How much responsibility does the federal government bear for this illegal weapons trade? Did employees of the economics and foreign ministry help Heckler & Koch circumvent regulation?

In 2012, Holger Rothbauer, a Tübingen-based lawyer, brought criminal charges against civil servants involved in the case, arguing that not only were the suppliers liable but so were the people who allowed the exports to take place. But back then, when Rothbauer’s charges were first filed, even the preliminary proceedings in the case against Heckler & Koch had not begun.

Rothbauer says he expects Heckler & Koch to blame the government as part of their legal defense strategy. “Everything will be brought to light then,” he said. “It is simply not possible for Heckler & Koch to have hid the actual destination of the weapons by itself. They must have had help from civil servants.”

Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green party lawmaker, says he is surprised that people involved in the deals, who work in the Foreign Office and other ministries, have not been charged. As for the former Heckler & Koch employees, it took six years to bring about a lawsuit since the charges were filed. “I was counsel for the defense for 30 years and have never experienced such a delay in proceedings,” said Ströbele. “And this makes me very, very suspicious.”

Did authorities deliberately drag out proceedings so that the crimes would become immune to prosecution by the statute of limitations? Ströbele thinks ties between the arms manufacturers and local politicians in southern Germany could be an explanation.

At the same time, criminal charges were filed in April against critics of the arms manufacturer. Jürgen Grässlin, Daniel Harrich and Danuta Harrich-Zandberg, authors of the book “Network of Death,” which probes Heckler & Koch, are accused of revealing secret information from the investigation.

Heckler & Koch facilities in Oberndorf am Neckar. â€" Photo: Aspiriniks

In the indictment, which Die Welt has read, the six former Heckler & Koch employees are accused of having intentionally exported weapons including 4,702 G36 rifles worth 4.1 million euros to the provinces of Guerrero, Jalisco, Chiapas and Chihuahua, without the necessary permits.

Heckler & Koch declined to comment and has, so far, denied any wrongdoing.

The arms manufacturer, no doubt, is in a precarious position going forward. Die Welt has found that critics want Heckler & Koch to be graded as an untrustworthy exporter by the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control because of the legal proceedings taking place. If that attempt is successful, Heckler & Koch's global business would be paralysed.

In the worst case scenario for Heckler & Koch, federal agencies would reject all their export applications as was the case in 2014 with competitor Sig Sauer, a handgun company that was also accused of exporting illegal weapons. Such a move could be disastrous for Heckler & Koch.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!