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(photo credit: AP)
A Spanish court has agreed to consider opening a criminal case against six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, over allegations they gave legal cover for torture at Guantanamo Bay, a lawyer in the case said Saturday.
Human rights lawyers brought the case before leading anti-terror judge Baltasar Garzon, who agreed to send it on to prosecutors to decide whether it had merit, Gonzalo Boye, one of the lawyers who brought the charges, told The Associated Press.
The ex-Bush officials are Gonzales; former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith; former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff David Addington; Justice Department officials John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee; and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes.
Yoo declined to comment. A request for comment left with Feith through his Hudson Institute e-mail address was not immediately returned.
Spanish law allows courts to reach beyond national borders in cases of torture or war crimes under a doctrine of universal justice, though the government has recently said it hopes to limit the scope of the legal process.
Garzon became famous for bringing charges against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, and he and other Spanish judges have agreed to investigate alleged abuses everywhere from Tibet to Argentina's "dirty war," El Salvador and Rwanda.
Still, the country's record in prosecuting such cases has been spotty at best, with only one suspect extradited to Spain so far.
When a similar case was brought against Israeli officials earlier this year, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos assured his Israeli counterpart that the process would be quashed.
Even if indictments are eventually handed down against the US officials, it is far from clear whether arrests would ever take place. The officials would have to travel outside the United States and to a country willing to take them into custody before possible extradition to Spain.
The officials are charged with providing a legal cover for interrogation methods like waterboarding against terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, which the Spanish human rights lawyers say amounted to torture.
Yoo, for instance, wrote a series of secret memos that claimed the president had the legal authority to circumvent the Geneva Conventions.
President George W. Bush always denied the US tortured anyone. The US has acknowledged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described plotter of September 11, and a few other prisoners were waterboarded at secret CIA prisons before being taken to Guantanamo, but the Bush administration insisted that all interrogations were lawful.
Boye said he expected the National Court to take the case forward, and dismissed concerns that it would harm bilateral relations between the two countries.
He said that some of the victims of the alleged torture were Spaniards, strengthening the argument for Spanish jurisdiction.
"When you bring a case like this you can't stop to make political judgments as to how it might affect bilateral relations between countries," he told the AP." It's too important for that."
Boye noted that the case was brought not against interrogators who might have committed crimes but by the lawyers and other high-placed officials who gave cover for their actions.
"Our case is a denunciation of lawyers, by lawyers, because we don't believe our profession should be used to help commit such barbarities," he said.
Another lawyer with detailed knowledge of the case told the AP that Garzon's decision to consider the charges was "a significant first step." The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
There was no immediate comment from Garzon or the government.
The judge's decision to send the case against the American officials to prosecutors means it will proceed, at least for now. Prosecutors must now decide whether to recommend a full-blown investigation, though Garzon is not bound by their decision.
The proceedings against the Bush Administration officials could be embarrassing for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has been keen to improve ties with the United States after frosty relations during the Bush Administration.
Zapatero is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama for the first time on April 5 during a summit in Prague.