News / Asia

Spanish Court Seeks Arrest of Former Chinese Leaders in Tibet Case

FILE - Buddhist monk Thubten Wangchen (3rd R) and participants walk with Tibetan flags and images of Mahatma Gandhi during their march for "peace and non-violence" from Plaza d'Espanya [Spain Circus] to the Montjuich castle in Barcelona, Oct. 2, 2010.
FILE - Buddhist monk Thubten Wangchen (3rd R) and participants walk with Tibetan flags and images of Mahatma Gandhi during their march for "peace and non-violence" from Plaza d'Espanya [Spain Circus] to the Montjuich castle in Barcelona, Oct. 2, 2010.
Spain's National Court has ordered arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and four other officials on suspicion of involvement in alleged genocide in Tibet.

VOA obtained a copy of the ruling of the Madrid-based court from one of the plaintiffs on Tuesday.  The document, issued a day earlier, called for the arrest of former Chinese President Jiang and the other officials to enable authorities to question them about the genocide allegations.

The plaintiff that provided the document is the Tibet Support Committee (Comite de Apoyo Al Tibet), a Spanish group that advocates for the rights of Tibetans in China.

China had no immediate comment on the Spanish court's action. The court indicted another former Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in connection with the genocide case on October 9. That move prompted China's foreign ministry to denounce what it called an attempt to "interfere" in Beijing's "internal affairs."

The Tibet Support Committee filed suit against the former Chinese leaders in Spain because the European country enables its courts to prosecute alleged war crimes and genocide committed anywhere, provided the victims include Spanish citizens. One of the co-plaintiffs is a Tibetan Buddhist monk with Spanish citizenship, Thubten Wangchen.

Tibet Support Committee head Alan Cantos told VOA another reason his group is seeking prosecutions in Spain is that Chinese officials cannot be tried at the International Criminal Court. China has refused to ratify the Rome Statute that established the Netherlands-based court in 2002.

Speaking by phone from Madrid, Cantos said the five former Chinese leaders sought by the Spanish court will have to be careful about their movements.

"They stand accused of very serious crimes. And in a way, they are jailed in their own country, as they risk arrest if they leave their country. So, the impunity they enjoyed until now is seriously hindered by the accusations and by the orders of international arrest," said Cantos.

The other Chinese officials named in the arrest order include former prime minister Li Peng, former security chief Qiao Shi, former Communist Party official Chen Kuiyan and former family planning minister Pen Pelyun.

Spain's policy of granting universal jurisdiction to courts in war crimes and genocide cases allowed a Spanish judge to pursue charges against the late former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet. British authorities detained the former autocratic ruler in London in 1998 in connection with that case, but later released him on medical grounds.

In a commentary published Monday, Tokyo-based online magazine The Diplomat said most Spanish universal jurisdiction cases have not led to convictions of foreign suspects.  

The magazine said it is "virtually unthinkable" that China's indicted leaders will be extradited and forced to defend themselves before a Spanish court.

Cantos said his group's legal campaign against the former officials is about more than just a desire to see them in prison.

"The law is a long process from the moment you denounce the crimes, let the witnesses and experts unfold the truth and tell their story. All of that is part of justice and part of accountability. So in that respect, I think the signal sent by these cases is very significant, even though it may not end up in the classical movie theme of trial, verdict and jail," he said.

One notable success for Spain's universal jurisdiction system was the conviction of former Argentinean naval officer Adolfo Scilingo in 2005 for crimes against humanity. After he traveled to Spain voluntarily, a Spanish court sentenced Scilingo to hundreds of years in prison for complicity in throwing 30 people to their deaths from planes when Argentina was under military rule from 1976 to 1983, a period known as the "dirty war."

Cantos said Spain's National Court issued a second document on Monday, formally notifying former Chinese President Hu of the October indictment and requesting information about the leader's actions in Tibet.  The court has not said whether it seeks Hu's arrest.

The former president served as Communist Party chief of the Tibetan Autonomous Region from 1988 to 1992 and later as Chinese head of state from 2003 to 2013.

The region has been under the control of the Chinese Communist government in Beijing since 1950.

Many Tibetans accuse the Chinese government of repressing their religion and culture. China says Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and benefit from better living standards linked to Chinese investment in underdeveloped Tibetan regions.

The Tibet Support Committee welcomed the latest moves by the Spanish court as a hopeful sign for what it called "Tibetan victims of [Chinese] occupation and repression."  It said the action also is good for the "health of the Spanish judicial system and the separation of powers in our democracy."

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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