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Spain signals end to war crimes, genocide hunting

Ben Harding | Reuters

20 May 2009

Spanish judges who tried to extradite ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and investigate Bush administration officials over Guantanamo will likely be barred from doing so again after a parliamentary vote on Tuesday.

Under pressure from foreign governments, members of Spain’s congress almost unanimously passed a resolution which, if translated into law, would end the right of Spanish judges to investigate serious crimes like genocide anywhere in the world in cases where courts in the affected country do not act.

The resolution would restrict Spain, which had been praised by international campaigners, to only investigating cases in which the accused is in Spain or Spaniards are victims.

Spain’s Socialist government said earlier this year it would change the law after protests from Israel over the High Court’s decision in January to launch a war crimes probe into seven Israelis including former defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for a 2002 attack in the Gaza Strip that killed 14 civilians and a Hamas leader.

U.S. President Barack Obama has also expressed his opposition to moves by Spanish courts to begin a probe into former Bush officials, including then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, over torture allegations at Guantanamo Bay.

“There will be fewer places a victim can turn when he does not find justice in his own country,” said Reed Brody, spokesman for non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch. “There’s no doubt that the diplomatic heavyweights were throwing their weight around”.

The opposition-backed resolution covering a number of reforms to the judicial system was backed by 338 deputies to eight against.

The vote is the first step in formally changing a law which was used by Judge Baltazar Garzon to request Pinochet’s arrest and extradition from Britain in 1998.

Although the British government ultimately allowed him to return to Chile, his arrest spurred efforts in Chile to prosecute the atrocities committed while he was in power.

European diplomats have privately expressed concern that the law could oblige them to arrest members of friendly governments under EU-wide legal agreements.

It is unclear whether any change in the law would be retroactive and wipe the slate clean of cases currently under investigation.

Those include a request by a Madrid judge to interrogate eight senior Chinese officials including its defence minister as part of an investigation into the deaths of at least 203 Tibetans during disturbances in 2008.