Spanish judges' power cut to local cases

Senate must approve measure backed by MPs; law not retroactive, so Gaza bombing probe continues.

shehadeh rubble iaf strike hamas 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
shehadeh rubble iaf strike hamas 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Spanish legislators on Thursday yielded to criticism that the country should not be a 'global cop' and voted to change a law that allows judges to indict foreigners, narrowing its scope to cases with a clear link to Spain. The two main Spanish political parties, which are at each other's throats on just about everything else, joined forces to amend the law in a rare show of unity. The vote in the Congress of Deputies, or lower house of Parliament, was 341 in favor, two against and three abstentions. The measure now goes to the Senate, where passage is expected because of the bipartisan support. The reform will not be retroactive, so the dozen or so cases now being investigated at the National Court, including an investigation against Israeli officials over the 2002 assassination of Hamas terrorist Salah Shehadeh in Gaza, in which 14 others were also killed, will not be canceled, the Spanish Justice Ministry said. In early May, Judge Andreu of Spain's National Court decided to continue the investigation of Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and five other former top security officials for their part in the Shehadeh assassination, despite Spanish prosecutors' attempts to dissuade him from doing so on the grounds that Israel was still investigating the attack. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said the Shehadeh case "makes a mockery out of international law." In addition to the probe of the Gaza bombing, Spanish courts are investigated alleged Chinese abuses in Tibet and alleged torture at the US prison for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under the so-called doctrine of universal justice, grievous crimes such as torture, terrorism and genocide could be prosecuted in Spain even if they were alleged to have been committed in other countries. Judges have used it to pursue alleged crimes with no connection to Spain. And countries such as Israel and China have complained angrily. Under the new law, Spanish judges will only be able to pursue universal justice cases if the crimes involved Spanish victims or the alleged perpetrators are in Spain. New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the vote, saying Spain had been a model in this field of law and now "many victims of serious human rights violations will lose one of the few places they could turn in search of redress." "It is deplorable for the Spanish government to capitulate to diplomatic pressure," said its spokesman, Reed Brody. The International Criminal Court is the only global war crimes tribunal, but it can only prosecute crimes committed after its founding treaty, known as the Rome Statute, came into force in 2002 - which means it could not prosecute bin Laden or Pinochet. But even the ICC's reach is limited. It can only launch investigations in countries that have ratified the Rome Statute or where it is ordered to by the Security Council. The United States has not ratified the statute. The court has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for atrocities in Darfur, but he does not recognize its jurisdiction and has traveled to several countries without being arrested. Baltasar Garzon, Spain's most prominent judge, grabbed world headlines in 1998 when he used the existing Spanish law to indict Pinochet on charges of genocide and torture during his rule and had him arrested during a visit to London. Britain ultimately refused to extradite Pinochet to Spain grounds he was too ill to stand trial. Garzon also indicted bin Laden in 2003 over the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, although in that case, besides terrorism, there was also a link to Spain: the judge argued that Spain had been used as a staging ground for the suicide airliner attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Among other cases, Spanish judges also have launched a probe of alleged reprisal killings in Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. The practical effect of the doctrine has been negligible because extraditions have been extremely rare, and there has only been one conviction, that of an Argentine dirty war suspect in 2005.