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Published on Sunday, May 24, 2009 by The
Officials Among Targets of Inquiries US
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.
Fernando Andreu, Baltasar Garzón y Santiago Pedraz, judges at
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
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
"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
Another judge announced Thursday that he would charge three
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
Israel and China have complained strenuously about the investigations of their countries, making clear that
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
It is unclear whether changes to the law would apply retroactively to pending cases. In interviews, a Justice Ministry official said they would not, but a senior prosecutor in the
Regardless, most of the probes underway do have at least a tangential Spanish connection. The
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Garzón had asserted jurisdiction because some of the victims of the Chilean dictatorship were Spanish citizens. But that legal condition was pronounced unnecessary in 2005, when
Since then, rights groups have made a beeline for
Alan Cantos, president of the Tibet Support Committee, a Spanish advocacy group that requested the probes, said he is worried the Spanish government will succumb to outside political pressure.
"When powerful countries start getting touched, there is a backlash," he said. "You mix
The Spanish universal-jurisdiction investigations have resulted in a single conviction. Adolfo Scilingo, a former Argentine naval captain, was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2005 for pushing 30 drugged and bound prisoners out of government airplanes in the 1970s. He was sentenced to more than 1,000 years in prison by a Spanish court.
Carlos Slepoy, a Spanish-Argentine lawyer who helped pursue Scilingo, said the universal-jurisdiction cases have valuable secondary effects. Officials targeted by Spanish judges need to be careful about where they travel; Spanish arrest warrants are generally enforced throughout Europe but also sometimes in Mexico  and other countries.
"Any country should be able to bring these cases, as long as they are democracies that belong to the United Nations," Slepoy said.
'An Inflation of Cases'
Critics say the cases are influenced by politics. They note that the
"These guys are not proper judges from a professional point of view," said Florentino Portero, a contemporary history professor at
Spanish prosecutors have also expressed concern. They recommended that the
Javier Zaragoza, chief prosecutor at the National Court, said universal-jurisdiction cases are legitimate in principle. But he said
Even some human rights advocates said the explosion of cases has made them uneasy.
Gregorio Dionis, president of Equipo Nizkor, a Brussels-based group that has urged the
"There's been an inflation of cases filed under universal jurisdiction," he said. "Not all of them have been well grounded from a legal point of view."
Other advocates, however, point out that
In 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in
More recently, the
Special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas contributed to this report.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs