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A botched reform

New rules of universal justice mean that criminals caught by Spanish authorities will be let off the hook

It is possible to rush legal reforms through, but doing so entails a high risk of botching things, as has been made clear by the initial results of recent cutbacks to the application of the principle of universal justice.

The new conditions leave leaders of the Chinese Communist Party out of the courts’ reach in connection with an investigation into the Tibetan genocide, but they also let off the hook eight alleged drug traffickers from Egypt who were arrested on a ship with no flag that contained nearly 10 tons of hashish. By doing Beijing a favor in the name of realpolitik, Paris gets shortchanged after asking Spain for help with this drug seizure. The danger of impunity extends to other narcs, as the High Court now decides how this new restriction on universal justice affects them.

The reform notably reduces the Spanish courts’ power to try crimes committed beyond national borders. The judge in charge of the drug trafficking case feels that lawmakers are leaving them out of his reach, since they are not Spanish, were not flying a Spanish flag and were not sailing toward Spain, either.

The judge in charge of the trafficking case feels that lawmakers are leaving criminals out of his reach

The decision, which is opposed by the attorney’s office, comes on the heels of controversy over whether the José Couso case should be closed.The investigation involves the death of a Spanish cameraman in Iraq after US soldiers fired at his hotel. All of this makes existing cases more complicated and triggers all sorts of questions.

Part of the blame may lie with the fact that the new law was introduced as a fast-track legislative proposal, rather than a proper bill that would have required preliminary reports by the State Council and the Council of the Judiciary. It would not have been a bad thing to have these reports, in order to guarantee the technical quality of the new regulations.

Some people consider it quixotic for a country like Spain to expect any results from the principle of universal justice, when the suspects are foreigners. In any case, the problems that have arisen from the application of the recent reform demand that improvements be made to it. The government should be proactive and try to produce sensible legislation on this issue. True, it is very difficult to try and convict alleged criminals when they are citizens of another state (due to poor cooperation by the latter, especially if they are powerful); it was very difficult before the recent reforms, and even harder afterwards. But at the very least we need to guarantee that the law contains no mistakes, and that the principle of universal justice still reaches far enough that its power as a deterrent is not undermined.

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