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Villains of the world beware

Spain's courts have sought justice for victims from Argentina to China — but some governments aren't pleased with this do-gooder attitude.

A Chilean shouts anti-Pinochet slogans in front of the Chilean flag and a photograph of a "disappeared" woman during an anti-Pinochet protest in Madrid's Plaza del Sol, Oct. 24, 1998. In one of the most high-profile uses of universal jurisdiction, Spain asked the U.K. to extradite Pinochet to Spain to be tried. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

MADRID — Spanish judges have earned a reputation as superheroes of international justice, using Spain's provision of "universal jurisdiction" to go after the villains of the world.

But their crusading spirit has generated diplomatic anger and Spanish lawmakers are now moving to put a lid on it.

The drama has played out repeatedly in Spain’s Audiencia Nacional, or National Court.

Victims of Argentina’s Dirty War found no recourse at home when their first democratic government passed the Ley de Punto Final, a law that granted impunity to those responsible for systematic rape, torture and murder during the country's military dictatorship.

Spain’s National Court came to the rescue.

The court handles cases of terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and serious financial crimes pertaining to Spain. But it also has 16 international cases open, involving countries from Rwanda to China to Guatemala to the United States. Some of these cases have no connection to Spain.

While they are a small fraction of those underway in the court, the headlines these cases make and the waves they cause with some foreign governments have some referring to Spain’s National Court as the Universal Court.

The philosophy underpinning universal jurisdiction is that there are crimes so hideous — such as genocide and torture — that they cannot go unpunished, and so must be tried, somewhere.

Supporters agree that ideally the country where the crimes were committed would conduct the trials. If the country doesn't want to move forward, or if it can't, there is recourse in the International Criminal Court. The trouble is this court has limitations. It can only try cases that happened after 2002. Cases can only be initiated by prosecutors — not victims, advocacy groups or citizens as is permitted in Spain. And some countries like China and the United States have not signed or ratified the International Criminal Court Statute.

This is where universal jurisdiction comes into play, allowing a third country to dictate justice for those crimes.

“Massive violation of fundamental rights is a matter of international law. No nation can say it is an internal issue,” said Francisco Jimenez, professor of international public law at King Juan Carlos University.