Spains bows to Chinese pressure, moves to curb trials of atrocities committed abroad

Spain's government began to take steps on Tuesday towards dismantling a controversial law allowing its courts to prosecute cases that took place abroad

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 11:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 5:08pm

Spain’s parliament took the first steps on Tuesday towards reducing its courts’ power to investigate cases of human rights abuses committed abroad, a practice that has irked some foreign capitals including Beijing.

Lawmakers agreed to debate and vote on a bill introduced last month by Spain’s conservative Popular Party, which has a comfortable majority in the assembly.

If passed, it would limit the use of “universal jurisdiction”, a legal principle that allows judges to try certain cases of human rights abuses committed in other countries.

Since the doctrine passed into national law in 1985, crusading Spanish judges have used it to pursue US soldiers in Iraq, Israeli defence officials and Argentine military officers.

“Spanish authorities are more concerned about not offending some powerful governments than putting an end to impunity.”
Amnesty International

While very few probes opened under the doctrine have seen people brought to trial in Spain, investigations have sparked diplomatic rows with some countries.

In a recent case, a Spanish judge on Monday sought international arrest warrants for China’s former president Jiang Zemin, former prime minister Li Peng and three other top Chinese officials as part of a probe into alleged genocide in Tibet.

That prompted a diplomatic protest from China, a significant economic partner of Spain, which said it was “strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed” to the judge’s move.

Under the bill tabled by the Popular Party, judges could investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide committed abroad only if the suspect is a Spanish national, a foreigner living in Spain or a foreigner in Spain whose extradition has been denied by Spanish officials.

The existing legislation “promises much and generates great expectations” but “many years go by and no results are obtained and all we get are conflicts,” Popular Party lawmaker Alfonso Alonso told reporters ahead of the vote on the draft bill.

Human rights group Amnesty International called the proposal “a step backwards in the fight against impunity for crimes under international law, for justice and human rights”.

“Spanish authorities are more concerned about not offending some powerful governments than putting an end to impunity,” it added.

Amnesty International and 16 other rights groups sent a letter to the Spanish parliament urging lawmakers to reject the bill.

Spain’s main opposition Socialist Party opposes putting curbs on the use of “universal jurisdiction”.

“With the application of ‘universal jurisdiction’, Spain placed itself at the top of the list when it comes to the defence of human rights. If this bill is approved we will be at the bottom,” said Socialist lawmaker Soraya Rodriguez.

Spanish courts have investigated various cases under universal jurisdiction, notably over alleged atrocities during dictatorships in Chile and Argentina.

The best known use of the doctrine occurred in 1998 when former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon issued an arrest warrant for Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet in London.

Spanish judges have also opened investigations into a 2002 Israeli bomb attack on Gaza as well as probes into the alleged torture of inmates at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The practice was reformed in 2009 to restrict such cases principally to ones involving Spanish victims or suspects present in Spain.

That change came after a case brought against Israel over bombings in Gaza in 2002, another lawsuit that raised diplomatic tensions.