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Relatives of Spanish cameraman killed in Baghdad use WikiLeaks to press for justice

After years of delays, the family of a Spanish journalist killed in a 2003 US attack on a Baghdad hotel turns to WikiLeaks documents that suggest the US and Spain colluded to prevent legal action.

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The latest complaint from the family, filed at the Attorney General's office, asks that US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks be used as evidence that Spanish officials conspired to unduly influence prosecutors to dismiss the case. The accused include former Foreign Affairs Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, former Justice Minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido, and National Court Chief Prosecutor Javier Zaragoza.

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“The fundamental goal is to stop government meddling,” says Enrique Santiago, the Couso family's lawyer. “The family could have filed this with the courts directly, but it wanted to make sure that the rule of law still exists.” The Attorney General’s Office did not return calls for comment.

US meddling?

“It’s certainly going to increase the pressure on the government to play it straight,” says Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer for Human Rights Watch. “The implication that top Spanish officials did bidding for the US is very damaging and I think even without the lawsuit it may cause them to try to rectify [the situation].”

“Those of us who are pushing the Obama administration to undertake serious investigations were always hoping that Spanish cases would cause the US to act,” Mr. Brody says. “Nobody expects [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld in a court in Madrid, but it would be beneficial if these processes led to... answered questions at home.”

The Pentagon has publicly apologized for the deaths but found US troops acted within rules of engagement in the Palestine Hotel attack. US forces trying to capture Baghdad came under heavy sniper and rocket propelled grenade fire that day and intelligence suggested that a “spotter” was directing fire against US troops from the hotel, the US investigation said.

However, multiple journalists' accounts disagreed. Reporters on the scene said there was no fire coming from the hotel and that the location was a known refuge for foreign media. An investigation into the attack led by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that while the attack “was not deliberate, it could have been avoided and may have been caused by a breakdown in communication within the US Army chain of command.”

“The most disturbing thing of the revelations," says Brody, "is that the US was bullying other countries, not just Spain, to try to get officials to interfere with the judiciary. The US has built a wall of immunity and impunity for acts related to Iraq and Afghanistan and now it’s trying to get impunity extended abroad."

“It’s the first use of Wikileaks information in a court," he adds, "but I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. It’s going to change the playing field.”

And even if the collusion complaint doesn’t prosper, few doubt Spanish public opinion will be a lot more vigilant now over the broader Couso case. “Spanish people get upset with interferences on their courts,” Brody said. “Part of this case is to hammer away at that point, that Spain should not be a lackey and should let the courts do its work.”

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