March 29, 2009— -- In what may turn out to be a landmark case, a Spanish court has started a criminal investigation into allegations that six former officials in the Bush administration violated international law by creating the legal justification for torture in Guantanamo Bay.
The officials named in the 98-page complaint include former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who once famously described the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" and "obsolete."
Others include John Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who wrote the so-called "torture memo" that justified waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods for terror suspects.
Also named are: former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith; former General Counsel for the Department of Defense William Haynes II; Jay S. Bybee, formerly of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel; and David S. Addington, former chief of staff and legal advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
At the time of writing, ABC was unable to reach any of the officials for comment. Feith was reported to have said he was "baffled by the allegations."
In an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal on March 7, Yoo said the Obama administration risked harming national security if it punished lawyers like himself.
Why a Spanish court? Because the famous Spanish judge in the case, Balthazar Garzon, says four Spanish citizens formerly held in Guantanamo claim they were tortured there, and that Spain therefore has jurisdiction in the case.
The complaint says that the American officials violated international law, specifically the 1984 Geneva Convention Against Torture, signed by 145 countries including the United States and Spain.
It says the officials created the legal justification for torture. Not that they were in the torture room, but that they twisted the law , to justify the unjustifiable.
Garzon has an international reputation as a crusader against human rights violations, and has been outspoken about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
One of the Spanish lawyers who drew up the complaint, Gonzalo Boye-Tucet, told ABC News that arrest warrants could be issued "within weeks, maybe even days."
"The judge will first issue subpoenas, to give the American officials time to show up in court here in Spain. If I were in their position, that is what I would do," he said, speaking from his office in Madrid.
"But if they don't appear, arrest warrants would be issued, maybe even the next day," he said. "The process could move very quickly."
The question then would be whether the United States would allow their extradition.
Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, said he doesn't think that will happen.
"I think it's unlikely that the Obama administration will extradite anyone who is indicted in Spain for torture," Roth told ABC News. "But clearly if these people travel (outside the United States) they risk arrest."
Even if the United States won't extradite the officials, the case could end up putting pressure on the current administration to investigate them itself, Roth said.
"If the Obama administration follows the letter of the law, it will be under an obligation either to extradite these officials, which is unlikely, or to prosecute them, and hopefully this will be a spur to do the right thing, to prosecute, to investigate ... people who have been responsible for creating the legal justification for torture," he said.
Prosecutions under the Torture Convention are rare. But in October 2008 a court in Miami convicted Chuckie Taylor, son of the former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and sentenced him to 97 years in prison for torture committed in Liberia.
The Bush administration praised the verdict as a great day for justice. Charles Taylor is currently in the Hague on trial for war crimes.
Judge Garzon's most famous target was Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile who was detained in 1998 under the judge's warrant while he was visiting London for medical treatment.
British authorities kept him under house arrest for two years before he was allowed to return home to Chile, because his lawyers said he was too ill and infirm to stand trial. He lived on for eight more years and died peacefully, without ever facing trial.
The case of the six Bush-era officials will almost certainly come up when President Obama meets Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero for a bilateral meeting during the Summit of G-20 leaders in London next week.