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Spain's Judges Cross Borders In Rights Cases

High-Ranking U.S. Officials Among Targets of Inquiries

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 2009

MADRID -- Spanish judges are boldly declaring their authority to prosecute high-ranking government officials in the United States, China and Israel, among other places, delighting human rights activists but enraging officials in the countries they target and triggering a political backlash in a nation uncomfortable acting as the world's conscience.

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Judges at Spain's National Court, acting on complaints filed by human rights groups, are pursuing 16 international investigations into suspected cases of torture, genocide and crimes against humanity, according to prosecutors. Among them are two probes of Bush administration officials for allegedly approving the use of torture on terrorism suspects, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The judges have opened the cases by invoking a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, which under Spanish law gives them the right to investigate serious human rights crimes anywhere in the world, even if there is no Spanish connection.

International-law advocates have cheered the developments and called the judges heroes for daring to hold the world's superpowers accountable. But the proliferation of investigations has also prompted a backlash in Spain, where legislators and even some law enforcement officials have criticized the powerful judges for overreaching, as well as souring diplomatic relations with allies.

"How can a Spanish judge with limited resources determine what really happened in Tiananmen or Tibet, or in massacres in Guatemala or God knows where else?" said Gustavo de Arístegui, a legislator and foreign-policy spokesman for the opposition Popular Party. "We have our own problems and our own bad guys to take care of."

On Tuesday, the lower house of the Spanish parliament easily passed a resolution calling for a new law that would limit judges to pursuing cases with ties to Spanish citizens or a link to Spanish territory. Cases could be brought only if the targeted country failed to take action on its own.

The vote was prompted, in part, by two National Court judges who decided separately last month to investigate Bush administration officials on allegations that they encouraged a policy of torture. The judges have moved forward despite the opposition of Spanish Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido, who said the cases risked turning the National Court into "a plaything" for politically motivated prosecutions.

Another judge announced Thursday that he would charge three U.S. soldiers with crimes against humanity, holding them accountable for the April 2003 deaths of a Spanish television cameraman and a Ukrainian journalist. The men were killed when a U.S. tank crew shelled their Baghdad hotel. Judge Santiago Pedraz said he would pursue the case even though a National Court panel, as well as a U.S. Army investigation, recommended that no action be taken against the soldiers.

The controversy over universal jurisdiction has left the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in a bind. Many members of his Socialist Party have supported the judges in the past. But the probes are causing diplomatic headaches for Zapatero, who has sought to improve his standing in Washington after years of frosty relations with the Bush White House.

Israel and China have complained strenuously about the investigations of their countries, making clear that Spain will pay a political price if they continue. Spanish judges have opened two probes into Israeli military airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, dating to 2002. They are also conducting two investigations into alleged abuses committed by Chinese officials in Tibet, and a third regarding repression of the Falun Gong movement.

Julio Villarubia, a Socialist member of parliament, said it was unclear exactly how or when the Spanish government would amend its universal-jurisdiction law. But he said limits are necessary.

"We have not adopted the resolution because of pressures by the U.S., China, and Israel, though that pressure is known; the disagreements are there," he said.


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