Spanish Court Terminates Universal Jurisdiction Case Against Three U.S. Soldiers

On June 9, 2015, Judge Santiago Pedraz Gomez of Spain’s Audiencia Nacional (National Court) terminated Spain’s criminal investigation of three U.S. soldiers for the death of a Spanish cameraman who was killed in Iraq while covering the 2003 allied invasion of the country.

The reason for the termination was a 2014 statutory amendment narrowing Spain’s universal jurisdiction statute[1] and Spain’s Supreme Court’s May 2015, decision upholding that amendment in its affirmance of the dismissal of a case investigating alleged genocide in Tibet.[2]

Judge Pedraz in his June 9th decision deplored this amendment, which “prevents the persecution of any war crime committed against a Spaniard save in the unlikely situation that the alleged culprits have taken refuge in Spain.” As a result, Spaniards will be legally unprotected in similar cases that might arise in future. The Judge said, “Faced with such a crime committed against [Spanish] journalists or persons considered to be part of the civilian population (such as aid workers), neither the relatives nor the prosecutors will be able to request the opening of proceedings [in Spain] to at least identify the victim, request an autopsy or other urgent procedure, or investigate the circumstances.”

Earlier, in March 2014, and immediately after the adoption of the amendment, Judge Pedraz decided that the amendment could not be applied to this case because, he said, it contradicted Spain’s obligations under the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Under that treaty, he said, Spain was obligated to “prosecute the crime (search for people and make them appear) regardless of the perpetrators’ nationalities and wherever they may be.” Therefore, “the judge must refrain from applying . . . [the new statutory amendment]. The rule of law requires the existence of independent bodies to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, by impartially applying standards that express the people’s will and control the activities of public authorities.”[3]

This decision was appealed, and in October 2014 the 20 judges of the Criminal Chamber of the National Court allowed the case to proceed for a procedural error by the prosecution without a ruling on the merits.


[1] Under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state’s courts have universal jurisdiction (UJ) over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator. These crimes of international concern are (a) piracy; (b) slavery; (c) war crimes; (d) crimes against peace; (e) crimes against humanity; (f) genocide; and (g) torture. Spain implemented this principle in 1985 in its own domestic statutory law by conferring such jurisdiction on its National Court for certain crimes, including genocide; terrorism; and any other crimes under international treaties or conventions that should be prosecuted in Spain. The March 2014 amendment of this statute, among other things, restricted universal jurisdiction for war crimes to cases where the accused individual is a Spanish citizen or a foreign citizen who is habitually resident in Spain or a foreigner who is found in Spain and whose extradition had been denied by Spanish authorities.

[2] Spain’s National Court in June 2014 decided to terminate its investigation of alleged genocide in Tibet because of the amendment to the statute. Plaintiffs then appealed to Spain’s Supreme Court, which in May 2015 rejected that appeal.

[3] The earlier history of this case was discussed in another post.


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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