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Spain votes to curb trials of foreign atrocities

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Lawmakers in Spain approved a bill Thursday that will curb courts' powers to probe cases of human rights abuses committed abroad, a practice that has irked some foreign capitals.

The ruling party's proposal to limit the use of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which allows judges to try certain cases of crimes against humanity that took place in other countries, was passed by 180 votes to 137.

Spain has pioneered the use of the doctrine since it was 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.

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

The conservative Popular Party introduced the bill last month, just before a Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants for China's former president Jiang Zemin and former prime minister Li Peng for alleged genocide against the people of Tibet.

The judge's decision prompted a diplomatic protest from China, an important economic partner of Spain, which said it was "strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed" to the move.

Opposition and human rights groups accused the government of watering down the universal jurisdiction to appease Beijing.

"The economic agenda trumps human rights, which are only seen by the government as a source of unnecessary problems," Socialist Party lawmaker Julio Villarrubia said during the debate in parliament ahead of the vote.

- 'Step backwards' -

The Popular Party argued the reform was needed because most investigations opened under the existing legislation went nowhere and generated diplomatic conflicts.

"We can't keep creating false expectations," said Popular Party lawmaker Jose Miguel Castillo.

Under the reform judges can investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide 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 bill also tightens restrictions on who can file torture cases by mandating that plaintiffs must be Spanish citizens and that they must have been citizens at the time the torture was alleged to have occurred.

That could throttle the probe involving the Chinese leaders, which was brought by Thubten Wangchen, a naturalised Spanish citizen who fled Tibet in 1954 when he was a child.

The case against the Chinese leaders is one of 12 probes currently being carried out by Spain's High Court under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

The Popular Party used its absolute majority in parliament to fast-track the bill by putting it to a vote without first shepherding it through parliamentary commissions with accompanying votes on proposed amendments.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups in a joint statement called the proposal "a step backwards in the fight against impunity for crimes under international law, for justice and human rights".

Spanish lawmakers modified the doctrine in 2009 to allow cases to be heard only if they involved Spanish victims or suspects present in Spain and if no other national court would take on the case, leading to the dismissal of various cases.

That change came at a time of mounting pressure from the United States over cases relating to the prison at Guantanamo Bay and from Israel for an inquiry into a 2002 Israeli bombing on Gaza.

The best known use of the doctrine occurred in 1998 when Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet was briefly arrested in London on an arrest warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon.

British authorities later refused to extradite Pinochet to Spain and eventually allowed him to return to Chile.

It was the first time a former head of state had been arrested on a warrant brought under universal jurisdiction.

Lawmakers in Spain approved a bill Thursday that will curb courts’ powers to probe cases of human rights abuses committed abroad, a practice that has irked some foreign capitals.

The ruling party’s proposal to limit the use of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which allows judges to try certain cases of crimes against humanity that took place in other countries, was passed by 180 votes to 137.

Spain has pioneered the use of the doctrine since it was 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.

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

The conservative Popular Party introduced the bill last month, just before a Spanish judge issued international arrest warrants for China’s former president Jiang Zemin and former prime minister Li Peng for alleged genocide against the people of Tibet.

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

Opposition and human rights groups accused the government of watering down the universal jurisdiction to appease Beijing.

“The economic agenda trumps human rights, which are only seen by the government as a source of unnecessary problems,” Socialist Party lawmaker Julio Villarrubia said during the debate in parliament ahead of the vote.

– ‘Step backwards’ –

The Popular Party argued the reform was needed because most investigations opened under the existing legislation went nowhere and generated diplomatic conflicts.

“We can’t keep creating false expectations,” said Popular Party lawmaker Jose Miguel Castillo.

Under the reform judges can investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide 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 bill also tightens restrictions on who can file torture cases by mandating that plaintiffs must be Spanish citizens and that they must have been citizens at the time the torture was alleged to have occurred.

That could throttle the probe involving the Chinese leaders, which was brought by Thubten Wangchen, a naturalised Spanish citizen who fled Tibet in 1954 when he was a child.

The case against the Chinese leaders is one of 12 probes currently being carried out by Spain’s High Court under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

The Popular Party used its absolute majority in parliament to fast-track the bill by putting it to a vote without first shepherding it through parliamentary commissions with accompanying votes on proposed amendments.

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

Spanish lawmakers modified the doctrine in 2009 to allow cases to be heard only if they involved Spanish victims or suspects present in Spain and if no other national court would take on the case, leading to the dismissal of various cases.

That change came at a time of mounting pressure from the United States over cases relating to the prison at Guantanamo Bay and from Israel for an inquiry into a 2002 Israeli bombing on Gaza.

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

British authorities later refused to extradite Pinochet to Spain and eventually allowed him to return to Chile.

It was the first time a former head of state had been arrested on a warrant brought under universal jurisdiction.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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