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Spain14 May 2008

National Court rejects charges against three US soldiers implicated in the death of journalist José Couso

Spain’s National Court yesterday upheld an appeal by the public prosecutor’s office against Judge Santiago Pedraz’s decision to bring charges against three US soldiers implicated in the death of Telecinco cameraman José Couso, killed by an American shell fired at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian national, was also killed in the 8 April 2003 shooting in Iraq.

The court ruled by votes of two judges Angel Hurtado and Fermin Echarri against one vote by Judge José Ricardo de Prada that the facts advanced by Judge Santiago Pedraz were insufficient to proceed against the three US soldiers - Sgt Thomas Gibson, Capt Philip Wolford and Lieut-Col Philip de Camp.

The judges also said that there was insufficient proof of an intention on the part of the soldiers manning the tank from which the fatal shot came to fire on the Palestine Hostel where the international press was based.

In its ruling, the National Court also concluded that it could not be ruled out that the shot had been simply fired by mistake, at a wrongly identified threat, within the framework of military operations in Baghdad.

José Couso’s family said in a statement that they would continue to fight to prove that the killing of the cameraman was “a war crime”. His brother, Javier Couso, said, “One section of the judges buckled under pressure from the US military authorities, who are doing everything they can to see that this murder is not delved into further.”

The Spanish cameraman’s family also said that they would produce new evidence and very important new witnesses that would re-launch the trial. Javier Couso said he was prepared to accept the slowness of the procedure and did not rule out taking the case before the European Court of Human Rights.

“We strongly regret the decision taken by the National Court. It seems to us crucial that the three US Army soldiers should finally be tried in this case and that a trial should be held in the presence of all the implicated parties,” Reporters Without Borders said.

The US Army concluded in a 2003 report that the coalition forces had committed “no fault or negligence” at the Palestine Hotel.

Judge Santiago Pedraz’s first arrest warrant against the three soldiers in October 2005 as well as two requests to question them went unanswered and the case was closed by a Spanish criminal court in March 2006. The case was only reopened after the Supreme Court decided to reopen the investigation into the cameraman’s death on 5 December 2006.

Judge Santiago Pedraz on 16 January 2007 issued an international arrest warrant against the three American soldiers for “murder” of José Couso. The judge also called for an examination of the possibility of freezing the American soldiers’ assets in case they were sentenced to pay damages to José Couso’s family.

Prosecutor Jesús Alonso appealed on 18 May 2007 against Judge Pedraz’s ruling on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to proceed against the three soldiers.

Santiago Pedraz announced on 24 May 2007 that he rejected the appeal by the Spanish prosecutors’ office.

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