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Spain: Judges’ Power to Prosecute Human Rights Crimes World-Wide Curtailed

(July 2, 2009) On June 25, 2009, the lower house of the Parliament of Spain approved a measure that would reform the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which the judiciary has observed since 2005, by limiting judges' discretion to prosecute crimes committed abroad. The reform is an amendment to a government bill aimed at modernizing Spain's court system and expediting the handling of cases. At present, Spanish judges can prosecute such crimes as genocide and human rights abuses wherever they occur. Some of the most recent examples of these prosecutions are cases brought against officials in the United States and Israel; perhaps the best known case was that prosecuted by Judge Baltasar Garzon against the former President of Chile Augusto Pinochet. (Spanish Lawmakers Vote to Curb Judicial Probes Abroad, EXPATICA.COM, June 26, 2009, available at

Although the judges will still be able to prosecute these and other types of crimes–e.g., war crimes, terrorism, piracy—committed around the globe, the reform requires that the suspects be in Spain or have affected a Spanish victim, or that there be proof of a “link with Spain.” Moreover, a judge must temporarily halt the investigation “if a court from the country where the events took place or … the International Criminal Court decides to prosecute.” (Agustin Yanel, Parliament Limits Spanish Justice Abroad, ELMUNDO.ES, June 26, 2009, World News Connection online subscription database, NewsEdge Document No.200906291477.1_ba3b00611f8ca270.)

MP Gaspar Llamazares, of the United Left-Initiative for Catalonia-Greens, called the passage of the measure by the Congress of Deputies “a sad day for universal justice, for the defense of human rights, and for the victims,” to be celebrated only by “the hawks of Guantanamo and Gaza.” (Id.) Non-government organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were also critical of the government reform, as was the General Union of Workers. The latter issued a communiqué deploring the lack of a “transparent and public debate” on the reform measure before its adoption, and expressed the opinion that it “gives the clear message that Spain is more concerned about not upsetting certain powerful countries than about putting an end to the impunity enjoyed by some criminals.” (Id.)

By contrast, Dolors Montserrat, a Popular Party MP, contended the reform was necessary, among other reasons, “to avoid 'diplomatic conflicts' caused by some Spanish rulings.” Socialist Julio Villarrubia added that the measure was needed to adapt Spanish legislation to that of other European countries in regard to the universal justice issue. (Id.; see also Press Release, Congress of Deputies, El Congreso envía al Senado la reforma de la Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial que modifica el tratamiento de la jurisdicción universal (June 25, 2009), available at
; Ley Orgánica 6/1985, de 1 de julio, del Poder Judicial [the law that is being amended], NOTICIAS JURIDICAS, (last visited June 30, 2009).)