3 US Soldiers Indicted in Spain for Death of Cameraman

A Spanish judge has once again indicted 3 US soldiers in connection with the death of a Spanish cameraman, Jose Couso, in Baghdad in 2003.  During a firefight, US troops directed fire upon the Palestine Hotel, believing they were firing upon Iraqi spotters for artillery fire positioned at the hotel.  Reporters were staying at the hotel and Couso was filming the battle and died from wounds sustained as a result of tank fire directed at the hotel.  The 3 soldiers now indicted have been linked to that tank fire.

The soldiers were first indicted in 2007 but the case was closed in 2008.  It was revived just last year when the family of the Couso appealed to Spain’s Supreme Court.  Previously in 2006, a 3 judge panel at the National Court ruled that Spain did not have jurisdiction at that the US soldiers believed they were firing upon Iraqi combatants and the death of Couso was unintentional.  Now as part of the present indictment, the 3 soldiers are ordered to post 1 Million Euro bonds or face an embargo of their assets.

Obviously this indictment presents a whole host of legal issues.  Should this indictment even have been issued in the first place; not only was the first indictment dismissed, before it was even issued, the Spanish National Court said it didn’t even have jurisdiction?  Does the Spanish Court even have any business gotten involved given that the event occurred in Iraq?  In similar cases in the past, the Pentagon has refused to turn over US troops facing similar charges.  Should the US turn over troops to answer to such charges?  Should the US Military Justice System handle such issues?  Should an international tribunal be formed to deal with such issues?  Bear in mind, though this type of incident would not rise to the level of crimes over which the ICC has jurisdiction (the ICC only has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and aggression), the US is not a party to the Rome Statute and will not submit the jurisdiction of the ICC, what would make them submit to the jurisdiction of a tribunal to put their soldiers on trial?  Finally, should reporters trying to gain such intimate access to battle expect that soldiers will always know where they are and be able to avoid putting them in harm’s way?

One comment

  1. Spain’s legal system recognizes the principle of universal jurisdiction. Article 23.4 of the Judicial Power Organization Act (LOPJ) gives Spanish courts jurisdiction over crimes committed either by Spaniards or foreign citizens outside of Spain. It was restricted somewhat by a November 2009 bill, but it still seems to cover the situation at hand. It was amended in three ways:

    1) Although crimes against humanity could be prosecuted previously, it was officially added to the list of crimes. 2) The law’s application was limited to cases where a) the alleged perpetrators are in Spain; b) the victims are of Spanish nationality; or there is some link to Spanish interests. And 3) the amendment will not let a claim proceed if another “competent court or international Tribunal has begun proceedings that constitute an effective investigation and prosecution of the punishable acts.”

    I doubt anyone would predict compliance on the part of the U.S., though it seems it could avoid or could have avoided the issue by conducting its own investigation. As for the journalists’ expectations of relative safety, the journalists in that hotel were all nearly “non-embedded” international correspondents and it was widely known that they were there. More curiously, al-Jazeera had written to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 23 February, giving the precise location of its offices to avoid being targeted. The offices received a direct missile strike the same day of Couso’s death.

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