Opinion: Can Spain really prosecute George W. Bush aides over torture?

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The White House has discouraged any talk of prosecuting George W. Bush or any of his aides over the torture of terrorism suspects -- which President Obama has now outlawed. The new president says he just wants to move on from the policies of the old one.

But not everyone agrees. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has called for a Truth Commission, modeled on South Africa’s transition from apartheid, to explore who was responsible for sending the United States down the path of torture. And now a court in Spain is weighing an investigation into whether Bush administration officials violated the Geneva Convention in authorizing waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used with terrorism suspects after 9/11.

On the hit list: former Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and his boss (now a judge) Jay Bybee, Bush-era Pentagon officials Doug Feith and William Haynes II, and David Addington, chief of staff and legal adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Spain argues that it has jurisdiction in the case because five Spanish prisoners at Guantanamo Bay allege they were tortured. And human rights organizations in the United States agree.


As Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said last week, ‘the importance of this investigation cannot be understated. Contrary to statements by some, the Spanish investigations are not ‘symbolic.’ Just ask Augusto Pinochet, who was stranded under house arrest in England and who ultimately faced criminal charges in Chile because of the pressure of the Spanish courts.” He added, “If and when arrest warrants are issued, 24 countries in Europe are obligated to enforce them. The world is getting smaller for the torture conspirators.”

Can Spain really prosecute U.S. officials? Legal experts say they can. As Marjorie Cohn explained on, Israel used the same concept of ‘universal jurisdiction’ to prosecute, convict and execute Adolph Eichmann for his role in the Holocaust, even thought the crimes took place in other countries.

But even the human rights community acknowledges that if the United States was prosecuting the Bush team, other countries like Spain would back off.

So, back to you Mr. President.

-- Johanna Neuman

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