By Inmaculada Sanz
MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's parliament voted on Tuesday to fast-track a law limiting judges' ability to go after alleged human rights abusers around the world, a day after Spanish arrest orders were issued for former Chinese officials accused of genocide in Tibet.
China protested against the orders, called on Spain to drop the issue and issued a veiled threat about bilateral ties.
Spain has pioneered the use of universal jurisdiction, the concept that crimes against humanity can be prosecuted across borders, in a series of cases that have also caused diplomatic friction. Spanish judges have sought to question or detain officials from Chile, the United States and Israel in cases involving alleged genocide, torture or human rights abuses.
A bill to make it harder for judges to investigate such cases, unless the accused were Spaniards or resident in Spain, won support from members of parliament on Tuesday.
The law will have to be debated and approved, but it can be processed without the need to seek outside feedback.
Submitted by the ruling center-right People's Party (PP) last month as the Tibet case gathered force in the courts, it was only backed by PP members. But the party has an absolute majority in parliament and won the vote by 179 votes to 163.
The main opposition Socialists had signalled they would vote against the bill, although the party had also watered down Spain's universal jurisdiction law when in power in 2009.
Spanish High Court Judge Ismael Moreno issued arrest orders on Monday for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, ex-Premier Li Peng and three others. Moreno noted that he was obliged by a separate judicial ruling to order the arrests, which he had declined to issue in April last year.
Spain's national police could not confirm if they have relayed the order to Interpol, which would then decide whether or not to post a "red notice" or international arrest request.
The former Chinese leaders are accused of genocide in Tibet, which Chinese troops took control of in 1950 and is now viewed in China as an integral part of the nation. China says it "peacefully liberated" the Himalayan region, which it says was mired in poverty, exploitation and economic stagnation.
The Spanish case - brought eight years ago by Tibetan groups in Spain and a Tibetan monk who has Spanish nationality - would be almost impossible to pursue if the rules are changed.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday the judge's ruling was a "mistaken action." China hopes Spain can "appropriately deal with" the issue, spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
"Whether or not this issue can be appropriately dealt with is related to the healthy development of ties," she said.
China is not a major trade partner for Spain but Spanish officials have wooed investment from China, both in industry and in sovereign debt.
"The proposed reforms imply a major limitation on human rights protections because of the influence of powerful countries," said Joaquim Bosch, judge and spokesman of Spanish association Judges for Democracy, which is lobbying against the changes to the law.
Groups in Spain and abroad spoke out against changes to the law which has led to a number of groundbreaking cases in Spain.
"Spain was the trailblazer. Spain has been a reference, a beacon for hope in Latin American countries," said Ignacio Jovlit of Amnesty International in Spain.
One of the most publicized case that Spanish judges have prosecuted under universal jurisdiction was that of Chile's former strongman Augusto Pinochet, arrested in London in 1998 on a warrant issued in Spain. Spanish ex-judge Baltasar Garzon tried and failed to get Pinochet extradited to Spain for trial.
In another case, a Spanish judge sought the arrest of U.S. troops over the death of Spanish cameraman Jose Couso when a U.S. tank fired on a hotel in the Iraq war in 2003.
Members of Couso's family met lawmakers on Tuesday to lobby them over the bill. Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 showed the United States had pressured Spanish officials to stall the Couso case.
"We've been asking the courts for 11 years to investigate the assassination of my brother in Baghdad despite all the hurdles that came out in WikiLeaks. They can't just try to put a lid on it to appease the great powers," Couso's brother Javier Couso told reporters.
The PP said the modifications to the law would make sure the courts were in line with Spain's international treaties.
"This reform was not written with any particular case in mind," said PP Member of Parliament Jose Miguel Castillo-Calvin, who leads the PP's parliamentary team on justice issues.
He said many of the major human rights investigations opened in Spain had led nowhere. "We can't create false expectations in victims of atrocities who believe that they will get efficient outcomes just because a judicial investigation has been opened."
He said the reform would widen the sorts of crimes Spanish judges could pursue, including international financial crimes or violence against women, and could prosecute international rights crimes if it was proven that the country where they have occurred had refused to investigate them.
(Additional reporting by Emma Pinedo, Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Janet Lawrence)