Court ruling on Tibet raises concerns over Spain-China relations

November 24, 2013 8:13 pm

[Source: Financial Times]

By Tobias Buck in Madrid and Simon Rabinovitch in Shanghai

There is rising concern in Spain over a diplomatic and economic backlash from China, after a criminal court in Madrid called for the arrest of five former Chinese leaders for their role in alleged crimes of genocide in Tibet.

The ruling, handed down last week, is aimed at Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese president, Li Peng, the former prime minister, and three other high-ranking ex-officials. The men are said to have held “political or military responsibility” in periods when the Chinese authorities are alleged to have committed human rights abuses against the Tibetan population.

All five now face the risk of detention should they travel to Spain or to countries that recognise Spanish arrest orders. However, former Chinese top officials almost never travel abroad, which means it is highly unlikely that the five former officials will ever appear in court in Madrid.

Beijing reacted angrily to the move all the same, denouncing the Tibetan support groups in Spain that initiated the case. The Chinese authorities called in the Spanish ambassador last Thursday to convey their displeasure, a message that was repeated at a meeting between Chinese diplomats and Spanish government officials in Madrid last week.

Hong Lei, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said Beijing had sought clarification from Spain about the ruling. He added that China expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to Tibetan activist groups in Spain for “repeatedly manipulating the issue”.

José Manuel García Margallo, the foreign minister, has insisted publicly that Madrid has no desire to interfere in the country’s judicial process. But Spanish diplomats made clear the government is seriously concerned about the impact the spat could have on the country’s normally trouble-free relationship with a key trading partner.

“This is a very complicated situation,” one Spanish diplomat said.

Analysts said the diplomatic rift came at a particularly awkward time for Spain, which is hoping to deepen its economic relationship with China in the midst of afragile economic recovery.

“Spain is trying to attract Chinese investment and big Spanish companies are trying to establish a foothold in China,” said Charles Powell, the director of the Real Instituto Elcano, a Madrid-based think-tank. “Given that the Chinese authorities have a major say in who wins contracts and who doesn’t Spain obviously fears that the Chinese authorities will not take kindly to this initiative [by the court].”

The criminal complaint that started the case was filed by a pro-Tibetan pressure group seven years ago. It made use of Spain’s relatively broad universal jurisdiction provisions, which allow judges to pursue criminal cases even if they took place outside Spain.

 There was next to no coverage of the arrest orders or Mr Hong’s response in Chinese state media, suggesting that Beijing is itself trying to contain fallout by limiting public discussion.

Speaking before the arrest orders, Zhu Weiqun, head of the religious affairs committee in the Chinese parliament’s advisory body, angrily denounced foreign courts for accepting such cases.

“It is absurd and ridiculous behaviour,” he said in an interview with European journalists in October. “People who think like this will only humiliate themselves. Whatever country’s courts accepts these lawsuits is also humiliating itself.”

He added that Western nations had in the past burnt, looted and pillaged China, but now that such actions do not work some are turning to lawsuits to pressure China. “If a country’s courts accept these cases, all it is doing is inviting enormous embarrassment for itself,” he said. “Go ahead if you dare.”

Spain´s universal jurisdiction provisions have previously been used by investigating judges to pursue Israeli officials for alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip. They also formed the basis for a high-profile Spanish attempt in 1998 to prosecute Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator.

Stung by the repeated diplomatic and political backlash against such legal moves, Spain tightened its universal jurisdiction provisions in 2009. The Chinese case, however, predates that change.