Congress approves restrictions on universal jurisdiction doctrine

New legislation curtailing international investigations goes into effect this summer

Spain’s pioneering universal jurisdiction doctrine, which has enabled judges to prosecute foreigners in connection with human rights crimes committed in other countries, will be shaved back within four months following a vote in Congress Tuesday night to reform the judicial code.

According to the reform, judges will only be able to open investigations against a suspected human rights violator if the defendant "is Spanish or a foreigner who frequently resides in Spain," or who is currently in the country and Spanish authorities have refused to allow their extradition.

After an intense debate that pitted the entire opposition against the ruling Popular Party (PP), the final vote stood 179 in favor and 163 against, reflecting the conservatives’ absolute majority in Congress. The new legislation will come into effect within the next four months.

Opposition groups roundly condemned the government’s decision and were united in their conviction that pressure from Beijing guided the hand of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party administration. Earlier this week a Spanish High Court judge signed off on an order to request that Interpol issue international arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, ex-Prime Minister Li Peng and three other high-ranking former officials of the Chinese Communist Party for alleged crimes against humanity in Tibet. Beijing issued a sharp rebuke and threatened trade sanctions over the court’s decision.

“The Spanish brand has been converted into the mark of Cain,” said United Left coordinator Gaspar Llamazares.

“Spain’s image has been severely damaged,” said UPyD deputy Irene Lozano. “What did the Chinese government offer in exchange for this outrage against human rights?”

The principle of universal justice was pioneered by Baltasar Garzón, the crusading High Court judge who was suspended in 2011 for overstepping his authority in ordering corruption suspects in jail to be wiretapped during meetings with their lawyers. Garzón issued an international arrest warrant for the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Among the investigations that are now set to be shelved are the death of television cameraman José Couso at the hands of US forces in Iraq in 2004, the CIA’s rendition flights that used Spanish airbases as stopovers, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, allegedly genocidal policies in Tibet, alleged human rights abuses by Morocco against the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara and a lawsuit against former Nazi concentration camp guards.

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