Germany Sues U.S. Over Prisoners

: Peace palace, The Hague, Netherlands, home of the International Court of Justice world court
Foreigners in the United States run the risk of being imprisoned -- or even executed -- without help from home, unless the World Court forces the U.S. to respect international law, Germany said on Monday.

Rights of foreigners to consular access were still being ignored, just like those of two Germans executed last year in Arizona, the director general of legal affairs for the Federal Foreign Office said in opening arguments at the International Court of Justice, the United Nations' highest court.

"This state of affairs is of great significance; not just for Germans, but for all foreign nationals arrested in the United States, and could have particularly tragic consequences in cases in which, like in ours, the death penalty may be imposed," Gerhard Westdickenberg said.

Germany filed a case to the court last year in a last-ditch bid to halt the execution of German-born Walter LeGrand, arguing Arizona officials had broken the Vienna Convention by not informing German consular officials about the arrest and murder conviction of LeGrand and his brother Karl.

Walter was gassed to death on March 4, 1999, the day after the World Court issued an emergency order to postpone the execution until the case could be heard. Karl LeGrand had been put to death before Germany filed the case.

"A case like that of the LeGrands could happen any time again... Right while I speak, German nationals who have been deprived of their consular rights are held in U.S. jails," Westdickenberg said.

Since 1998, when the United States pledged to improve efforts to grant consular access, at least 24 Germans have been arrested without being informed of their rights, he said.

Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, which the United States and most other nations have signed, authorities who arrest or detain a foreigner have the obligation to inform the person's country so it can provide assistance.

Quoting Amnesty International, Westdickenberg said 87 foreign nationals were on death row in the United States as of June 2000. Since 1993, 14 have been executed and the Vienna Convention was violated in 11 of those cases, he added.

Westdickenberg said although Germany opposed the death penalty, this was not the issue. Each individual nation had the right to enforce its own laws and use the ultimate penalty.

It was vital for global legal relations that the court address the issue of the United States ignoring its emergency order and not halting the execution of Walter LeGrand.

Germany is not disputing the details of the LeGrands' crime, in which they stabbed to death a bank manager in a botched robbery in 1982. A bank clerk they stabbed six times survived.

"We deeply deplore the great suffering they inflicted on the victims and those left behind," Westdickenberg said.

But Arizona authorities knew in 1982 that the two brothers were Germans and never advised them of their rights to see a German consular officer, he said. Grmany only learned of their situation in 1992, not from U.S. officials but from the LeGrands themselves when fellow inmates told them of their rights.

Germany is asking the court for reparation, not yet defined, for the brothers' deaths and for a judgment to ensure the United States does not continue to violate the Vienna Convention.

The United States will make its opening arguments on Tuesday and oral hearings will continue until Friday.

Arizona has acknowledged it violated international law in the detentions and sent a formal apology to the German government.

The World Court, formally known as the International Court of Justice, can only rule on state-to-state disputes. Although its judgments are binding under international law, it has no independent means to enforce compliance.

The German lawsuit comes at a time of increasing protests worldwide against U.S. executions of foreign nationals.

European states including Germany have expressed concern about foreign inmates on death row in the United States.

Last Friday, protests from Sweden, France, Mexico and the European Union failed to prevent the execution in Texas of Miguel Flores, a Mexican-born man who fatally stabbed a college student 11 years ago.