High Court confirms drug traffickers must be freed under government reforms

13-to-3 vote supports judges’ decisions to let suspects go earlier this month

Fernando J. Pérez
A Syrian sailor arrested during a drug bust in international waters was later released.
A Syrian sailor arrested during a drug bust in international waters was later released.jorge zapata (efe)

Thirteen Moroccan drug traffickers who were going to be tried in Spain will be released instead, following a legal reform limiting the concept of universal justice.

The drug dealers, who were caught on May 31 with 16 tons of hashish in the westernmost portion of the Mediterranean Sea, will benefit from the High Court’s interpretation of the government’s recent changes to the law.

Until now, foreign criminals detained in international waters near Spain could be arrested by Spanish authorities and tried in the courts, following a legal principle that is followed by some countries and repudiated by others.

But now, Spanish judges will no longer be able to pursue drug traffickers who are caught any further than the limits of the country’s territorial waters, 12 nautical miles off the coast.

Critics of the reform say it was tailor-made to please China

The ruling Popular Party (PP) recently limited Spanish courts’ ability to see cases involving non-Spaniards whose alleged crimes were committed outside Spain.

Critics of the reform say it was tailor-made to please China after Spain’s High Court issued international arrest warrants for several high-ranking current and former officials of the Chinese Communist Party, as part of an investigation into genocide claims in Tibet. The move caused a diplomatic incident between both nations.

While the exact effects of this reform on other cases remained slightly unclear, on Monday the 16 judges in the criminal division of Madrid’s High Court voted 13 to three that the new legislation prevents Spain from pursuing foreign drug traffickers in international waters when their ship does not fly a Spanish flag and there is no evidence that they are planning to deliver their cargo onto Spanish soil.

This group vote supports a High Court judge’s decision to release eight alleged drug traffickers from Egypt on April 8 for the same reasons. Three days later, eight Syrians who had been caught carrying narcotics aboard their ship were also let go by a second judge.

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