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Campaigners start UK court case to stop Saudi arms sales

LONDON (Reuters) - Campaigners began a legal challenge on Tuesday to halt Britain’s multi-billion-pound arms sales to its ally Saudi Arabia, arguing the weapons could be used in Yemen in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) is seeking an order at London’s High Court to block export licences for British-made bombs, fighter jets and other munitions which it says the Saudi-led Arab coalition are using in a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen’s civil war.

The war, which has raged since March 2015, has killed more than 10,000 people, half of them civilians, and unleashed a humanitarian crisis in the poorest country in the Middle East.

An annual report by U.N. experts who monitor sanctions and the conflict in Yemen, which was seen by Reuters last month, said the Saudi-led coalition acting in support of the Yemeni government had carried out attacks that “may amount to war crimes”, accusations that Riyadh rejects.

In December, the United States said it had decided to limit military support to the campaign in Yemen because of concerns about widespread civilian casualties.

Saudi Arabia is a major customer for British defence companies and an important British ally in countering terrorism, and Prime Minister Theresa May has been trying to build on traditionally strong ties with oil-wealthy Gulf Arab monarchies before Britain leaves the European Union.

Since the start of the conflict, Britain has approved export licences to Saudi Arabia for more than 3.3 billion pounds worth of aircraft, weapons and munitions, CAAT says.

However, May’s government has come under increasing pressure from MPs in parliament over its policy on the arms sales and CAAT is seeking a judicial review over the decision to allow the exports to continue.

Britain says it has one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world and will not grant a licence if there is a “clear risk” that items might be used to carry out a serious violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).

“The government is confident in its robust case-by-case assessment and is satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria,” Britain’s Foreign, Defence, Trade and International Development Secretaries said in a joint statement in November.

Martin Chamberlain, the lawyer representing CAAT, told the High Court the evidence showed the government could not be sure British weapons were not being used in breach of IHL. He said no military target could be identified in about 90 of 122 incidents where there was concern of IHL violations.

“There is only one conclusion that can properly be drawn. The Secretary of State did not and does not have any basis in law for saying the clear risk test had not been met,” Chamberlain said.

The case is due to last three days, with much of the government’s argument being heard in closed hearings, and the ruling is not expected for some weeks.

Editing by Janet Lawrence