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Killing the Witness: Spanish Judge Orders Arrest & Extradition of U.S. Soldiers in Death of Spanish Journalist Jose Couso in Iraq

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The judge said the action was needed because the U.S. had provided “no judicial cooperation” in trying to resolve the death. We hear response from the Couso family and air excerpts from the documentary “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness,” featuring eyewitnesses to the shooting including reporters and two of the U.S. soldiers facing arrest. [includes rush transcript]

A Spanish court has issued international arrest warrants for three U.S. soldiers connected to the killing of Spanish tv cameraman Jose Couso in Iraq.

On April 8 2003, the U.S. military opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two journalists: Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters cameraman from Ukraine, and Couso who worked for the Spanish TV network, Telecinco.

On Wednesday, the Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz issued arrest warrants for Lt. Col. Philip de Camp, Captain Philip Wolford and Sgt. Shawn Gibson all of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. The judge also requested the soldiers be extradited to Spain.

The soldiers have not been formally indicted but if they were brought to trial they could face jail sentences of up to 20 years for murder and “crimes against the international community”.

Under Spanish law, a crime committed against a Spaniard abroad can be prosecuted in Spain if it is not investigated in the country where it is committed.

In a statement issued to Democracy Now, Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Barry Venable defended the actions of the American troops in Iraq.

He said “U.S. Central Command fully investigated the incident and determined that the U.S. service members acted appropriately during that combat action.”

Venable also said the Pentagon has “cooperated previously with the Spanish Government, including by providing information concerning the incident and resulting investigation.”

But Spanish officials disagree. The arrest warrant said the U.S. had provided “no judicial cooperation” in trying to resolve the death.

After the judge issued the arrest warrants, Jose Couso’s brother, Javier held a press conference in Madrid.

  • Javier Couso, brother of slain journalist Jose Couo, speaking to reporters in Madrid Wednesday.
  • Maribel Permuy Lopez, mother of Jose Couso. She was interviewed in Washington D.C. on Sept. 24 at the antiwar march.

We turn now to the documentary, “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness,” produced by Jose Couso’s network, Telecinco, and broadcast on Spanish TV. It includes interviews with numerous journalists who were inside the Palestine Hotel, the AP reporter embedded with US forces at the time of the attack as well as two of the soldiers named in the warrants as well as two of the soldiers wanted in Spain, Shawn Gibson and Lt. Col. Philip de Camp.

  • “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After the judge issued the arrest warrants, Jose Couso’s brother, Javier, held a press conference in Madrid.

JAVIER COUSO: We were recognizing the institutional work. We asked for diplomatic explanations and protections to the family. But right now they have to face the Spanish Justice. What we are going to urge the U.S. Government to do is to begin the process for the extradition as soon as possible. This is a crime against the international community and a crime of war. Therefore in order to be fully satisfied we’re going to pursue that the request for the U.S. soldiers accused of the killing of Jose Couso to be extradited.

AMY GOODMAN: Javier Couso, the brother of slain journalist Jose Couso, speaking to reporters in Madrid on Wednesday. He and his mother, Maribel Permuy Lopez were in Washington, D.C. last month for the anti-war march. I caught up with Maribel at the rally. This is some of what she had to say.

MARIBEL PERMUY LOPEZ: [Translated] I have come to Washington to denounce the murder of my son at the Palestine Hotel during the invasion of Iraq on April 8, 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the documentary, “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness.” It’s produced by Jose Couso’s network, Telecinco, broadcast on Spanish television. It includes interviews with numerous journalists who were inside the Palestine Hotel, the A.P. reporter embedded with the U.S. Forces at the time of the attack, as well as two of the soldiers named in the warrants. This is an excerpt.

NARRATOR: Sergeant Shawn Gibson commands one of the tanks that on April 8 would take positions on the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge. He would be the one to fire on the Palestine Hotel. His tank carries the flag of Captain Wolford’s company. One of his soldiers has no problem in showing it: a skull with two crossed swords. On the left, their nickname, “The Assassins.” Days after the attack, Gibson agrees to talk to a team from Belgian public television.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: [translated] It was easy to find them, but difficult to convince them. The argument that I used was if this goes to court and the affair gets complicated, the most probable result is that the chiefs of staff will lay the blame on you.

SHAWN GIBSON: I was receiving artillery rounds up there in front of my tank, beside my tank, up under my tank. They were shooting up under my tank with RPGs on the bridge. You go over to the bridge right now, you will see holes up under the bridge where my tank was sitting.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: [translated]And at one point, he stops the interview.

SHAWN GIBSON: Want to go look at my tank and see the shots on my tank? Come on, let’s take a look at that. Come on.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: Wait, wait, wait, finish the — no.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: [translated] He tells me, I’ll show you my tank, how we were attacked. He takes me all around the tank, and shows me the holes, from all kinds of artillery.

SHAWN GIBSON: See, they shot my grenade launcher.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: [translated] At that point of the interview, he was almost angry at having to explain the battle on the bridge to me.

NARRATOR: Weeks later, on the bridge, we still find evidence of the battle, although not as much as Gibson asserted. The damaged bridge railing, the impact of rocket propelled grenades. Other traces reveal the tank’s decisive response to attack. Enough to make a hole in this lamp post when they fire on the Ministry of Telecommunications. On April 8, cameras at the Palestine Hotel film how one of the tanks located behind the bridge is hit. But above all, they see the armored tanks reply to fire with their full power again and again and always straight at this building, the Ministry of Youth. That is where the Fedayeen have taken up positions from a nearby building. An old janitor soon watches them flee.

JANITOR: [translated] They all ran away. There was no one left. The ministry was empty. But before that, there was major resistance.

NARRATOR: From the Palestine Hotel, journalists can see the bridge, but not the areas from which the tanks are fired upon. The U.S. troops fire continuously on the other side of the river. They’re being attacked from an area to the left of the bridge and from the Ministry of Youth, 1,500 meters away from the hotel. If, according to the official explanation, they were being attacked from the Palestine Hotel, why did they only fire a single round in that direction throughout the entire morning? At this point, the official version evolves to include the spotter theory.

CHRIS TOMLINSON: It was at that point that Captain Wolford’s men had captured an Iraqi prisoner who had a radio. They were monitoring — they had an Arab linguist — an Arab American listening to the radio, listening to what they call a “forward observer,” someone calling in the mortar fire and directing the infantrymen in their attack against Captain Wolford’s forces.

SHAWN GIBSON: Then I went to scan higher. I started going by the floors. I seen no one until I get to the upper third floor. I see somebody up there with a pair of big binoculars, and I see them pointing.

JON SISTIAGA: All war correspondents carry binoculars for just that kind of a thing. To spot a tank two kilometers away, and to tell the cameraman that there is a tank over there.

CARLOS HERNANDEZ: [translated] It was simply ridiculous that they should think that the tank position coordinates were actually being given from the hotel. You could see the tanks from just about anywhere in the city.

NARRATOR: Did Gibson see a journalist with binoculars and think he was an enemy spotter? It could be an excuse, but surprisingly, the sergeant goes on to assert that there were no journalists on the balconies.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: You didn’t see it was a camera?

SHAWN GIBSON: There was no camera. I seen binoculars.

PASCALE BOURGAUX: The camera on the balconies.

SHAWN GIBSON: Like this one? Negative. A person don’t stand like this with two hands in front of their eyes with just a camera. Okay? I seen two lenses and their hands up holding it. It looked like binoculars to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Shawn Gibson, one of the three soldiers named in the international arrest warrant issued by the Spanish judge Wednesday. That’s an excerpt of the documentary, “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness,” produced by Jose Couso’s network, Telecinco. This is another clip that includes Gibson as well as Lieutenant Colonial Philip DeCamp another of the soldiers named in the arrest warrants.

NARRATOR: Gibson swings his cannon towards the hotel and requests Captain Wolford’s permission to fire, but he still hesitates.

SHAWN GIBSON: And I still hesitated. Do you hear me? I hesitated.


SHAWN GIBSON: Okay? And I took my time, and I called it up to ensure what I seen, and it was clarified with another set of eyes.

NARRATOR: The decision was not taken in the heat of battle. Ten minutes go by until Gibson receives the order to open fire.

SHAWN GIBSON: We did not know that they had reporters in the Palestine Hotel. If we would have known that, we would not have fired a round over there. I don’t even know if that information was given to the U.S. Army. I do not know that. Okay? If it was, it didn’t get down to my level.

CHRIS TOMLINSON: What Colonel Perkins and Colonel DeCamp have told me is that they did not have any information about the Palestine Hotel or the location of western journalists prior to coming into Baghdad on April 7.

NARRATOR: When Colin Powell visits Spain on May 2, he confirms what everyone had assumed. The military command was perfectly aware that the journalists were based at the Palestine Hotel.

COLIN POWELL: We knew about the hotel. We knew that it was a hotel where journalists were located, and others, and it is for that reason it was not attacked during any phase of the aerial campaign.

NARRATOR: The generals monitoring the fighting from their headquarters in Qatar soon watched the incident broadcast worldwide on television and called Baghdad demanding an explanation.

CHRIS TOMLINSON: That image got out on satellite television and their senior commanders at the two and three-star general level, messaged them and said, what are you doing shooting the Palestine Hotel?

NARRATOR: Tomlinson overhears radio communications discussing the incident. Lieutenant Colonel DeCamp is informed of the attack by his superiors and shouts over the radio.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL DECAMP: Who just shot the Palestinian Hotel?

NARRATOR: Tomlinson hears how DeCamp, clearly upset, asks Wolford:

LIEUTENANT COLONEL DECAMP: Did you just shoot the Palestinian Hotel?

CHRIS TOMLINSON: The way he asked the question was a little misleading. When he asked Captain Wolford, did you shoot the Palestine Hotel, he assumed knowledge that Captain Wolford didn’t have.

SHAWN GIBSON: I wish it would have never happened, but it has happened. And I pray to God and I ask God for his forgiveness, and my sincere apologies and grievances to their families. It was not done intentionally.

CHRIS TOMLINSON: There was the sense throughout the chain of command, from Perkins to DeCamp to Wolford, all the way down to Shawn Gibson that they had done something very bad. I can tell you that Captain Wolford was visibly upset when I saw him, an hour — two hours later. He was very upset about it. Sergeant Gibson is very upset about it. Colonel DeCamp obviously was very angry, he was upset.

NARRATOR: Spanish journalists are not as understanding as Tomlinson about the military officer’s behavior. The three attacks on journalists on April 8 lead them to think that U.S. forces did not want witnesses.

JON SISTIAGA: [translated] What’s my opinion? My opinion is that there was a deliberate intent to fire on the journalists’ hotel.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, “Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness.” It’s produced by Jose Couso’s network, Telecinco, and broadcast on Spanish Television. Jose Couso is the Spanish cameraman who along with Reuters cameraman, Taras Protsyuk, was killed when the U.S. military shelled the hotel on April 8, 2003.

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