FACTBOX-Spanish judges spark controversy with international rights cases

by Reuters
Tuesday, 11 February 2014 13:50 GMT

MADRID, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Spain's parliament is considering changes to its law of universal jurisdiction, under which Spanish judges and prosecutors have pursued people around the world accused of genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.

Over the past two decades Spanish judicial authorities have sought to question or detain officials from the United States, Chile, China and Israel in cases that have caused diplomatic friction between those countries and Spain.

China rebuked Spain this week after a judge issued arrest orders for five top Chinese former officials over allegations of human rights abuses in Tibet decades ago.

The following are some well-known cases involving universal jurisdiction:


Spanish former judge Baltasar Garzon was a pioneering figure in universal jurisdiction when he issued an arrest warrant for Chile's former strongman Augusto Pinochet, who was detained in 1998 in London where he was receiving medical treatment. Britain refused to extradite Pinochet to Spain for trial, and he returned to Chile, which promised to prosecute him for rights abuses under his dictatorship.


Spanish judges at different times opened investigations into torture at the internationally criticised U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, and into the use of Spanish air bases for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's "extraordinary rendition" programme in which suspected al Qaeda militants were moved around the world on secret flights.

Wikileaks diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Madrid showed that U.S. officials were concerned about these cases and lobbied to have them stalled. None of the cases is active.


Another case involving U.S. officials is the ongoing investigation into the death of Spanish television cameraman Jose Couso, who died in the Iraq war in 2003, when a U.S. tank fired on a hotel in Baghdad. (Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk was also killed in the incident)

Judge Santiago Pedraz has sought the arrest of three U.S. soldiers accused of involvement in the case. Couso's family has complained that Interpol has failed to process those warrants.


Spanish High Court Judge Fernando Andreu in 2009 opened a preliminary investigation into a 2002 Israeli bomb attack on Gaza, and named a former Israeli defense minister and other high-level Israeli officials as subjects of the probe. Israel did not reply to his request for information on the case.


In 2010 Spain's High Court requested South Africa extradite an exiled Rwandan official, Lieutenant-general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, accusing him of genocide and the murder of a Spanish missionary in 1994 and three Spanish aid workers in 1997.

The case never moved forward.


Former judge Garzon ran into controversy on his home turf in 2008 when he used the concept of universal jurisdiction to try to open investigations into human rights abuses during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil war and the subsequent dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.

He argued that Spain's amnesty for Franco-era crimes, a keystone of the country's transition to democracy after the dictator died in 1975, violated international human rights law.

Garzon was charged with abusing his judicial powers by launching the Franco probe. He was cleared in the case, but was removed from the bench in a separate one after being found guilty of illegal wiretaps of suspects in a corruption case.


In the first trial in Spain under universal jurisdiction, in 2005, former Argentine navy Captain Adolfo Scilingo was sentenced to 640 years in jail for throwing political prisoners from aircraft during the so-called Dirty War in the South American country. Scilingo had moved to Spain in the late 1990s. Garzon was the investigating magistrate in the case.


Argentina soon turned the tables on Spain. When Garzon's case against Franco-era crimes was stalled in Spain, hundreds of Spanish victims turned to an Argentine court to seek justice.

Argentine prosecutors now seek to trigger an investigation into Franco-era crimes in Spain and have asked Spain to extradite former policemen from the Franco years to be tried in Argentina for alleged torture during the 1960s and 1970s.

Spain is processing the request. (Compiled by Fiona Ortiz; Edited by Sarah Morris/Jeremy Gaunt)

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