By Steven Marsh Posted Apr 1 2004
Spanish television cameraman José Couso filmed the event that would lead to his own death at the hands of an American tank crew as U.S. troops poured into Baghdad. Couso, who worked for Spain's independent channel Telecinco, and Ukrainian-born Reuters journalist Tara Protsyuk were killed April 8, 2003, the day before the fall of Baghdad. An Abrams M1A1 tank, perched on the Al-Jumuriya bridge over the River Tigris some three quarters of a mile away, turned its gun on the Palestine Hotel and unleashed a missile. The deadly shot destroyed the 14th floor balcony from which Couso and Protsyuk had been observing the action.
Since his death, Couso's family has campaigned for an official investigation into the incident and brought criminal charges against those American officers involved.
Spanish law permits members of the public to bring a case to the attention of an investigating magistrate independently of law enforcement and other state agencies. The magistrate then decides whether there is a case to pursue. In this instance, Judge Guillermo Ruiz Polanco, of the Audiencia Nacional, equivalent to a federal court, has commenced preliminary investigations. He accepted the lawsuit filed May 27 by Couso's mother and siblings against three members of the 3rd Infantry Division for “murder and war crimes.”
The accused are Sgt. Shawn Gibson, allegedly responsible for firing the round that killed Couso and Protsyuk, and two superior officers, Capt. Philip Wolford and Lt. Col. Philip Decamp. All three men, members of the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade, 64th Armor Regiment, have admitted their participation in the shooting on various occasions.
In numerous public appearances and court testimony, Couso's Telecinco partner, reporter Jon Sistiaga, has suggested that journalists who declined to be embedded were the deliberate targets of U.S. military attacks. Sistiaga pointed to the abundance of information available to the American authorities as to the whereabouts of foreign journalists. Earlier, Couso had filmed the same tank firing at a camera position on the offices of Abu-Dhabi Television, and prior to that, on the same day, Al-Jazeera's premises had also been attacked. According to the highly respected Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writing in the London broadsheet The Independent the following day, Al-Jazeera had supplied the Pentagon with the coordinates of its Baghdad office two months previously and had received assurances that it would not be targeted. Al-Jazeera's bureau in Kabul had also been destroyed by U.S. forces during the Afghan campaign in 2001.
While other countries have tended to regard the Geneva Convention as a diplomatic nicety, Spain's domestic legislation enables judges to act upon it. A 1985 law establishes the authority of the Spanish courts to act in the event of crimes being committed beyond its frontiers if such crimes violate the treaties of which the nation is a signatory. The Couso family argues that both the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute grant Spanish courts jurisdiction in such instances. A celebrated example of this was the action taken by investigating magistrate Baltasar Garzón. He became perhaps the world's most famous judge in 1998 when his indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet led to the tyrant's arrest and two-year detention in London. Following this precedent, other European judges – notably in Belgium and France – have followed suit.
Under pressure from the Spanish government ally, the Pentagon has offered various versions of the event which differ from those claimed by the Couso family and his fellow journalists. Initially, the U.S. military's media bureau in Qatar claimed that the tank had responded to sniper fire from the roof of the hotel. Later, the State Department informed its Spanish counterpart that the tank had acted in self- defense amid heavy fighting in the area.
However, according to all the eyewitnesses, there was no shooting ongoing at the time of the attack on the hotel. Indeed, most of the journalists had returned to their rooms after a half-hour lull in the ongoing battle. Furthermore, in spite of repeated claims by the U.S. Army that they were unaware of the media presence in the hotel, the press corps in Baghdad had moved to the Palestine days before from their previous headquarters at the Al-Rashid Hotel on the advice of the Pentagon.
Spanish media casualties in Iraq have proved a particular embarrassment to Spain's conservative government, which has staunchly supported the United States in in the face of massive domestic opposition. Indeed, Prime Minister José María Aznar together with British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined George W. Bush for the summit in the Azores Islands three days before the invasion where the final decision was made to launch an attack outside the framework of the United Nations.
Couso is the second Spanish journalist to be killed in Iraq. Shortly after Aznar accused United Left, the Communist Party-led coalition that opposed the war, of being “fellow travelers” of Saddam Hussein during a parliamentary debate on Spain's participation in the invasion, Julio Anguita Parrado, the son of the former leader of the coalition and a correspondent for the Madrid daily El Mundo was killed in an Iraqi rocket attack.
Following Couso's death, reporters and photographers staged a series of protests aimed at pressuring the government to seek an open investigation from the U.S. authorities. Since the war, Aznar has been invited on several occasions to the White House and to Bush's ranch in Texas. At a press conference following one such Washington visit, a Spanish journalist asked President Bush and Prime Minister Aznar for their responses to the allegations against the U.S. military in the Couso case. Bush dismissed the accusation with the succinct, “I think war is a dangerous place, and I think that nobody would kill a journalist intentionally.” Aznar simply maintained that the killing had been a mistake that the U.S. authorities had acknowledged.
The Couso family is also exploring other legal avenues, such as that initiated in the Brussels courts where under Belgium's “universal jurisdiction” laws twenty plaintiffs have sought the indictment of General Tommy Franks, among other officers, for allegedly ordering war crimes to be committed during the conflict and for having failed to prevent others being perpetrated.
Meanwhile in Madrid, weekly protests organized by the Couso campaign take place in front of the ruling Popular Party's headquarters, with larger demonstrations held on the eighth of each month, the exact day Couso was killed, across the road from the U.S. embassy.