A G 36 KA rifle manufactured by Heckler & Koch is pictured at the arms factory headquarters in Oberndorf, 80 kilometers southwest of Stuttgart, Germany, May 8, 2015. Picture taken May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski(reuters_tickers)
By Alexander Hübner and Gernot Heller
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - A German court on Thursday ordered the government to decide whether to allow gunmaker Heckler & Koch to export parts to Saudi Arabia, handing a partial victory to the arms manufacturer.
Heckler & Koch, one of the world's best-known gunmakers, filed a complaint last year against the government for delaying its decision on licensing the export of parts needed to manufacture its G36 assault rifle in Saudi Arabia. The firm applied for a permit more than two years ago.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in 2008 approved the lucrative licensing deal that allows Saudi Arabia to produce the G36, despite concerns about human rights abuses in the Gulf kingdom.
The government changed its approach on arms exports two years ago following a storm of media criticism, and in January Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Germany might look harder still at its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, after a wave of executions there.
Saudi Arabia executed 47 people in a single day in January, including a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric and dozens of members of the Sunni militant group al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia has defended its human rights record by saying its legal system is based on Islam, its judiciary is independent and it does not use torture.
Frankfurt's Administrative Court ruled on Thursday that the Federal Office for Export Control must now decide one way or another on the Heckler & Koch case.
"It may well be that it winds up being a negative decision," Judge Rainald Gerster told the court, saying it was not the job of the court to make a political decision.
The company welcomed the court ruling. "That's what we finally wanted to achieve," said Uwe Brueggemann, the lawyer representing Heckler & Koch in the lawsuit.
But the victory could turn out to be a Pyrrhic one.
The Economy Ministry said in a statement it had taken note of the ruling and would make a decision. It noted that Gabriel remained critical of exports to Saudi Arabia and had spoken out against an approval of the licence in February.
An economy ministry source said Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats, welcomed the ruling because it gave him the opportunity to make a decision, which had previously been blocked by his Christian Democrat coalition partners.
Despite Gabriel's pledge in 2014 to take a more cautious approach on licensing arms exports, German exports of military equipment rose to around 7.5 billion euros ($8.54 billion) in 2015, he said in February.
In the first six months of 2015, Germany permitted the export of arms worth over 178 million euros to Saudi Arabia, according to a report by the economy ministry in October 2015.
Heckler & Koch's G36 is standard issue for many armies around the globe and its HK416 assault rifle is said to have been used to kill Osama bin Laden.
($1 = 0.8783 euros)
(Writing by Caroline Copley; Editing by Andrew Roche)