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RIGHTS-SPAIN: ‘Universal Justice’ Threatened

Tito Drago

MADRID, Jun 23 2009 (IPS) - Spain, considered a pioneer in the area of universal justice and especially legal action in human rights cases, is about to take a step backwards in that regard. On Tuesday, activists and legal experts criticised a draft law that would limit the Spanish courts’ ability to investigate human rights abuses committed in other countries.

Leading jurists called together Monday and Tuesday by a score of human rights groups to discuss the situation agreed that the draft law to be introduced by the Spanish government to Congress Thursday would undermine human rights advances made in this country’s legislation.

The reform proposed by the socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to be debated by the lower house of Congress on Thursday, would amend a law on cross-border justice that enables judges in Spain to prosecute human rights violators in other countries if they have not been brought to justice by the courts there.

The advocates of the legal reform “want to export impunity,” Spanish lawyer Joan Garcés said at the two-day meeting. The professor of international relations was an adviser and personal friend of Chile’s first socialist president, Salvador Allende, who died in the bloody 1973 coup that ushered in a 17-year dictatorship in that South American country.

If the law is amended, the principle of universal justice would only apply to cases in which the victims were Spanish, the alleged perpetrators of genocide or other crimes against humanity were in Spain, or there was some “relevant connection” to Spain.

Passage of the legal reform is expected because it has the support of both the ruling Socialist Party and the main opposition force, the conservative Popular Party.

The highest profile case of the application of universal justice by the Spanish courts led to the 1999 arrest of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) in London on the basis of a warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón.

Although the British government eventually decided against the extradition of Pinochet to Spain on health grounds, he was held under house arrest for 503 days.

Under the proposed legal reform, “victims will see their access to justice further limited and the perpetrators will gain total impunity, an extremely serious setback that would demonstrate that political and economic interests are stronger than respect for the law,” Spanish lawyer Gonzalo Boyé told IPS.

Boyé is heading a lawsuit accusing six Israeli officials of war crimes in connection with a 2002 Israeli air force bombing in the Gaza Strip that killed 15 civilians.

The Spanish national court, the country’s highest criminal court, issued arrest warrants for the Israeli politicians and senior military officials.

Garcés told IPS that Spain put itself in the vanguard of the defence of human rights when it thumbed its nose at “the world’s leading power” (the United States) by going after Pinochet.

Mónica Cavagna, head of the Asociación Argentina Pro Derechos Humanos de Madrid (Argentine human rights association of Madrid), asked “Why are the majority of legislators in the Spanish parliament disregarding the views and wishes of their colleagues and judges who at the time joined efforts to live up to international norms on crimes against humanity?”

Cavagna remarked to IPS that it is not Spain that must limit the scope of universal justice, but on the contrary, it is the rest of the world’s “civilised nations that should assume their international obligations, enforce the laws and thus investigate, try and convict those who violate universal rights.”

For that reason, she said – referring to the proposed modification of the cross-border justice law – “it is a shame, truly a shame, that instead of protecting human rights, reasons of state are being invoked in an effort to merge the interests of the people with the interests of their governments.”

Former Supreme Court justice José Antonio Martín Pallín, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, told IPS that 68 cases of crimes committed outside of Spain are currently being prosecuted here, including those investigated by the internationally renowned Garzón.

Thus, if the current law were left untouched, it would be possible to issue warrants, for example, for the arrest of Israeli military officers who travelled to London, and to request their extradition to Spain to face charges of war crimes.

But “unfortunately, that legislation is not being enforced,” he added.

He also said that if the law is modified so that perpetrators of serious human rights abuses can only be tried here if the victims are Spanish, “it would be tantamount to a return to the 19th century.”

And in regard to the proposed new restricted law’s stipulation that the victims or perpetrators could also be people who are “well-loved and well-known” in Spain, Martín Pallín laughingly asked whether one of them could be Brazilian football star Ronaldo, “who is definitely loved and widely known in Spain.”

If the lower house of Congress approves the reform, as expected, it would amount to “political interference with an independent judiciary,” said Eisa Alsoweis, president of the Asociación de Amigos del Pueblo Palestino (Association of Friends of the Palestinian People).

Martín Pallín pointed out that the proposed reform is being given fast-track treatment – “too fast to reach useful, carefully debated agreements.” He was referring to the intention to approve it in parliamentary sessions this week.

Besides Cavagna, Garcés and Martín Pallín, participants in the debate organised by human rights groups included José Antonio Gimbernat, the president of the Federación de Asociaciones de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (Federation of Associations of Defence and Promotion of Human Rights); Raji Sourani, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights; lawyers Antonio Segura and Gonzalo Boyé, who are handling the case against Israel; and lawyer Antonio García of the Comisiones Obreras trade union confederation.

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