Spain’s Criminal Case Against U.S. Authors of Legal Memoranda Allegedly Justifying Torture

Spain’s National Court (Audiencia Nacional) has three criminal cases on its docket involving allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. officials with respect to U.S. interrogation of foreigners and war crimes. The Spanish court is involved because it has exercised its right under the international law principle of universal jurisdiction for a national court to exercise jurisdiction over such cases even if the crimes did not occur on its territory.

On March 17, 2009, the Spanish Association for the Dignity of Prisoners filed a 98-page criminal complaint in the Spanish court against six officials of the George W. Bush Administration: (i) David Addington (former Counsel to, and Chief of Staff for, former U.S. Vice President Cheney); (ii) Jay S. Bybee (former Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)); (iii) Douglas Feith (former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)); (iv) Alberto R. Gonzales (former Counsel to former U.S. President George W. Bush, and former U.S. Attorney General); (v) William J. Haynes (former General Counsel, DOD); and (vi) John Yoo (former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, OLC, DOJ).

The six officials are alleged to have participated in, or aided and abetted, the torture and other serious abuse of persons detained at U.S. run-facilities at Guantánamo and other overseas locations, all in violation of international law, including violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.

On March 28, 2009, Judge Baltasar Garzon decided that the complaint met jurisdictional requirements and opened a preliminary investigation.

On April 16, 2009, Spain’s Attorney General raised objections to the continuance of the case, and the next day, Spain’s Public Prosecutor filed a request that the complaint be dismissed and responsibility for investigating the matter be referred to a different judge. The latter was done on April 23rd with Judge Eloy Velasco being assigned.

On May 4, 2009, Judge Velasco, pursuant to the US-Spain Treaty on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, sent a formal request (Letters Rogatory) to the U.S. asking it to state “whether the facts to which the complaint makes reference are or not now being investigated or prosecuted.”  If there had been an affirmative response to this question, the Spanish court undoubtedly would have closed its investigation.

Nearly two years later, on March 4, 2011, the U.S. finally responded to the Letters Rogatory. It stated that the U.S. had clear jurisdiction over the case and asking that the case be sent to the U.S. for further review and investigation.

On April 13, 2011, Judge Velasco temporarily stayed the case in Spain and transferred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice with a request for the U.S. to indicate the time frame for U.S. action on the complaint.

On April 19, 2011, the Spanish Association for the Dignity of Prisoners filed an appeal of Judge Velasco’s order staying the case. That appeal is still pending.

In summary, the case is still pending in Spain with unresolved issues.

In the meantime, the body responsible for monitoring compliance with the multilateral treaty against torture (the Committee Against Torture or CAT) has severely criticized U.S. treatment of detainees in the so-called “war on terrorism” and the U.S. purported legal justification of such treatment through so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques.