Spain probes March 11 bombings

Wednesday an investigatory commission held its first meeting; the inquiry already shows signs of partisanship.

The tragic events are familiar: unprecedented terrorist attacks stun a nation, victims' families demand answers, the government appoints a commission to investigate.

But as Spain begins its hearings into the Madrid bombings, Spaniards - like Americans weeks ago - watch as their national tragedy shows signs of a political scuffle.

Wednesday the Spanish parliament began its investigation into the March 11 terrorist attacks. And although the first day's closed-door sessions were devoted largely to setting procedural ground rules, the inquiry already bears more than a passing resemblance to the April proceedings in Washington.

Indeed, Spain's hearings, much like those in the US, will probably reveal as much about the country's current political divisions as about what actually happened on March 11.

The Spanish inquiry has its own unique characteristics, of course. It is the first time in the more than 25-year history of Spain's democracy, for example, that the two major parties have both agreed to a parliamentary investigation.

Moreover, police and judicial investigations into the attacks in Madrid are still under way. Just last week, six Spaniards were arrested in connection with the attacks. And because those inquiries are still unfinished, Judge Juan del Olmo, who heads the judicial proceedings, refused Monday to turn over his findings to the commission.

The proceedings were delayed until after Sunday's European Union elections in order to avoid partisan "contamination." Still, the risk of political infighting is something that Paulino Rivero, leader of the Canaries Coalition Party and president of the parliamentary commission investigating the attacks, recognizes.

"Here in Spain we don't have a good model to follow [for this kind of hearing]," he says.

"There have been 18 investigatory commissions in the last 25 years, and all of them have been transformed into implements that each party uses against the other.... We have to hope that on an issue of such sensitivity, the parties - especially the two large ones - will act responsibly."

Mr. Rivero's challenge is formidable. He is cautiously optimistic that the recent EU elections, which the Socialists won by a margin slight enough to count as "a technical tie," will encourage the parties to resist partisanship. But the investigation comes after several months of political attacks.

Just weeks after taking office, Minister of Interior José Antonio Alonso outraged opponents when he suggested that the previous Popular Party (PP) government had not adequately prepared for such attacks.

That suggestion, according to Javier Pérez Royo, professor of constitutional law at the University of Sevilla, is the fundamental issue that the investigation must resolve. "The primary question for the commission," he says, is "What went wrong? To what degree was Spanish society prepared to confront an attack like the one that occurred?"

Many Spaniards also want explanations for government action in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

"They have to investigate what the government did between the 11th and the 14th of March," Pérez Royo explains. "How did it respond? Did it try to obtain an electoral advantage by using the information it had? Did it manipulate this information, and was it trying to keep to itself knowledge of who was responsible for the attacks until after the elections?"

Leaders of the PP say they welcome the hearings. Commission member Manuel Atencia recently said at a press conference that they will give their party an opportunity "to prove that the government of the PP always told the truth and never lied." He also said they will allow investigation of the Socialist Party's role in the protest marches outside PP headquarters on the eve of the elections - protests that may have been illegal under Spanish election laws.

In the next few days, representatives from the Spanish parliament's different parties will submit lists of requested witnesses. And whether former Prime Minister José Maria Aznar or Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero will be called to testify will probably be a contentious issue.

Although both the PP and the PSOE previously expressed interest in exempting the two leaders as witnesses out of respect for the dignity of their offices, rising political pressure has increased the likelihood that they will, in fact, appear before the commission. Many say that the investigations will be meaningful only if Mr. Aznar testifies. One recent editorial in the conservative newspaper ABC compared hearings without his testimony to "a game of hide-and-seek."

Meanwhile, some say they fear the effects that political wrangling could have on victims' families. "What is most important to us," says José Alcaráz, president of the Victims of Terrorism Association in Madrid, "is that the victims not be politicized."

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