On October 3, 2014, the 20 judges of the Criminal Chamber (Sala de lo Penal) of Spain’s National Court (Audiencia Nacional) issued an important ruling on Spain’s use of universal jurisdiction (UJ). In order to understand this decision, we first must look at UJ under customary international law and at Spain’s incorporation of this principle into its statutory law.
Customary International Law Regarding Universal Jurisdiction
Under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state’s courts have 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’s Statutes Regarding Universal Jurisdiction
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.
In 2009 Spain amended this statute to add these additional crimes for universal jurisdiction: crimes against humanity; illegal trafficking or illegal immigration of persons; and female genital mutilation (FGM). In addition, the amendment specified that these conditions or limitations had to be established for such jurisdiction: the alleged perpetrators were in Spain; or the victims were of Spanish nationality; or there was another connecting link to Spain.
The 2009 amendment also specified that for such Spanish jurisdiction to exist, another country or international tribunal had not started a process involving an investigation and successful prosecution of such offenses; if there were such another process, then the Spanish court should suspend or stay its case until the other investigation and prosecution has been concluded. The latter provision is referred to as the subsidiary principle.
In March 2014, Spain’s legislature (los Cortes Generales), approved another amendment to this statute (Article 23.4 of the 1985 Organic Law of the Judicial Power, as amended). Here are the principal provisions of the amendment that have been at issue in the October 3, 2014, decision by the Criminal Chamber of the National Court and in other recent judicial cases:
- For genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, universal jurisdiction exists only if 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.
- For torture and disappearances, universal jurisdiction exists only if the prospective defendant is a Spanish citizen, or the victims were (at the time of the events in question) Spanish citizens and the person accused of the crime was in Spanish territory.
- Certain crimes were added for universal jurisdiction, including war crimes (crimes against persons or goods in armed conflict); torture and crimes against moral integrity; and crimes covered by the Council of Europe Convention on the prevention and combatting of violence against women and domestic violence.
The Criminal Chamber’s Decision Regarding Universal Jurisdiction
The October 3, 2014, Criminal Chamber’s decision concerned use of UJ in (i) the Jesuits Massacre Case; (ii) the Guatemala genocide case; (iii) the case against American service members for alleged murder of a Spanish cameraman in the Iraq war; (iv) the case against U.S. personnel for alleged torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay; and (v) cases involving alleged Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Jesuits Massacre Case. The Chamber unanimously decided that Spain had UJ over the lower court’s criminal investigation of the November 1989 murders in El Salvador of the Spanish Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuria, five fellow Jesuit priests and their cook and her daughter. Although the statutory amendment imposed limits on UJ for crimes against humanity, such charges could be considered in this case because they are related to the murder charges for which there is clear UJ.
The Chamber further explained that upon having asserted jurisdiction over a set of criminal facts that constitute the state terrorism crime, Spanish Judges have jurisdiction over all other crimes connected to the facts investigated, even if that crime is a crime against humanity.
The Chamber’s decision was a result of an appeal from a decision by Judge Eloy Velasco, who handled the Jesuits case and who previously had indicted 20 Salvadoran military officials for murder, terrorism, and crimes against humanity. Velasco rejected the crime against humanity claim and decided to continue only with the terrorism claim. The appeal was brought by the U.S.-based Center for Justice & Accountability and the Spanish Pro Human Rights Association.
Guatemala Genocide case. The Chamber also decided that investigations in the Guatemala Genocide case involving claimed UJ could proceed for the moment, but the Chamber did so on procedural grounds without reaching the merits.
The Chamber’s decision was the result of an appeal from the May 2014 decision by Judge Santiago Pedraz Gomez of the National Court. He decided that the case could proceed for two reasons. First, the charges include terrorism—a crime that falls within Spanish extraterritorial jurisdiction whenever there are Spanish victims. Second, the charges of terrorism, genocide, and other atrocities are all based on the same facts. Under Spanish law, as in many European countries, a court’s jurisdiction extends to all criminal charges that arise from the same acts. Because the Court has jurisdiction over the terrorism offenses, Judge Pedraz announced that he will investigate the other connected crimes.
Judge Pedraz’s rationale appears to be the same as the Chamber’s in allowing the Jesuits case to proceed on the merits.
Case Against American Servicemembers for Alleged Murder of a Spanish Cameraman. The lower court has been investigating a case under UJ against American soldiers in the Iraq war for the alleged murder in 2003 of a Spanish cameraman. The Chamber also allowed it to proceed for a procedural error by the prosecution without a ruling on the merits.
The Chamber’s decision was the result of an appeal from a March 2014, decision by the lower court’s Judge Santiago Pedraz Gómez. He held that the amendment could not be applied to this case because, he said, the amendment contradicted Spain’s obligations under the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. The judge stated that the Geneva Convention obliges Spain to “prosecute the crime (search for people and make them appear) regardless of the perpetrators’ nationalities and wherever they may be.” Therefore, the court’s decision said, “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.”
Case Against American Personnel for Alleged Torture of Guantanamo Detainees. Another lower court judge has been investigating under UJ the alleged torture by American personnel of Guantanamo detainees. The chamber also allowed it to proceed because of a procedural error by the prosecution without the Chamber addressing the merits.
This decision occurred in an appeal from the March 2014 lower court’s Judge Pablo Ruz’ order. He concluded that under the new amendment “torture and war crimes cannot be pursued . . . because the target of the procedure is not a Spaniard or a resident of Spain.” These restrictions, however, are trumped, held the judge, by international treaties ratified by Spain–the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture–which force signatory countries to pursue crimes.
Judge Ruz also pointed out that the new amendment stipulates that crimes cannot be pursued in Spain if they are already being investigated by an international court or by the country where they were committed. Therefore, Judge Ruz this March renewed his request to the U.S. Government for information about U.S. investigation of this case. This blogger is not aware of any U.S. response to date to this request.
FGM Cases. The Chamber also unanimously decided that UJ could be used for criminal investigations and prosecutions of alleged Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) where the victims or perpetrators have some connection to Spain. This decision was based, in part, upon Spain’s August 1, 2014, ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which requires Spain to prosecute such crimes. The case involved the FGM of a young woman in Gambia in 2005
 Other provisions of the original 1985 statute and the 2014 amendment are covered in a prior post.
This post is based upon prior posts that are embedded above; the Spanish court’s announcement of the decision; Perez, The new universal justice can pursue ablation, El Pais (Oct. 3, 2014); Center for Justice & Accountability, Spanish National Court Upholds Spanish Jurisdiction To Investigate 1989 Massacre of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador (Oct. 3, 2014); Center for Justice & Accountability, Spain Presses Ahead with Guatemala Genocide Case Despite New Limits on Universal Jurisdiction (May 22, 2014). The text of the actual decision by the Criminal Chamber should become available online. Corrections or elaborations of this post by lawyers more knowledgeable about Spanish law are especially welcome.
 Some of the filings in the Jesuits case are available online.
 Some of the filings in the Guatemala case are available online.
 Many of the documents In the Guantanamo torture case are available online.