Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spain Opens Case against US Soldiers ; Its National Court Is Investigating Claims That They Were Responsible for a Spanish Journalist's Death in Iraq

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spain Opens Case against US Soldiers ; Its National Court Is Investigating Claims That They Were Responsible for a Spanish Journalist's Death in Iraq

Article excerpt

Olga Rodriguez was on the 16th floor of Baghdad's Hotel Palestine when a US tank fired, destroying her room's balcony, shattering its windows, and rendering her momentarily deaf. The single incendiary shell severely damaged three floors of the building where she and roughly a hundred other journalists were housed. But that wasn't the worst of that April morning in 2003. Ms. Rodriguez's colleague, TV cameraman Jose Couso, was fatally wounded in the attack.

Almost four years later, Mr. Couso's family members and friends are still seeking justice for his death. Recently, Spain's Supreme Court agreed that they may have a case, and last week, the lower National Court issued an international search and capture warrant for the American soldiers implicated in the incident.

Although it is unlikely the three will ever stand trial in a Madrid courtroom, the case has drawn worldwide attention and is raising serious questions about wartime justice and the right of one country to judge another's citizens.

"Spanish courts are competent to judge crimes of war, even when they're committed abroad, thanks to universal jurisdiction," says lawyer Leopoldo Torres, who is representing the Couso family. In fact, the principle of universal jurisdiction - which holds that some crimes are so grave as to warrant judicial intervention from any country - has already been used to justify the Spanish prosecution of late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and former Guatemalan president Efraim Rios Montt. The Couso case will explore whether the principle also applies to soldiers during wartime.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which conducted interviews with eyewitnesses, many Western reporters were observing the struggle for Baghdad from the hotel's balconies when the American M1A1 Abrams tank, stationed roughly three quarters of a mile away, turned toward the Palestine and fired a single round which mortally injured both Couso and Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk. The American tank sergeant, Thomas "Shawn" Gibson, later said he reported a suspicious spotter on the roof of the hotel to his superior, Capt. Philip Wolford, and received an order to fire. Wolford's commanding officer, Col. Philip DeCamp, was also implicated in the attack.

The Pentagon, whose Central Command in Iraq has contended that there was gunfire coming from the direction of the hotel, says that no crime was committed. "We fully investigated the incident and determined that US servicemen acted appropriately," says Pentagon spokesman Lt. Commander Joe Carpenter. "[The journalist's death] is unfortunately a tragedy of war."

Not everyone sees it that way. "I went to Baghdad knowing that I was taking the risk of getting hit by an Iraqi bomb, or being kidnapped by Iraqis," says Rodriguez. …

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