A high-level Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation against six former Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, on whether they violated international law by providing a legalistic framework to justify the use of torture of American prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said.

The case was sent to the prosecutor’s office for review by Baltasar Garzon, the crusading investigative judge who indicted the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The official said that it was “highly probable” that the case would go forward and could lead to arrest warrants.

I would call this a big deal. As the report notes, Garzon indicted Augusto Pinochet, which led to his arrest and extradition. This would not immediately lead to arrest and trial, but it would certainly confine the six officials to the United States and increase the pressure for stateside investigations. Spanish courts have “universal jurisdiction” over human rights abuses, under a 1985 law, particularly if they can be linked to Spain.

In the case against the former Bush administration officials, last week Judge Garzon linked it to an earlier case in which he indicted five former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were citizens or residents of Spain. The Spanish Supreme Court had overturned a conviction of one of them, saying that Guantanamo was “a legal limbo” and no evidence obtained under torture could be valid in any of the country’s courts.

The complaint was filed by a Spanish human rights group, the Association for the Dignity of Prisoners, to the National Court, which assigned the case to Judge Garzon. After the complaint is reviewed by the prosecutor, a criminal investigation would be likely to begin, the official said. If the case proceeds, arrest warrants could still be months away.

The 98-page complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, was prepared by Spanish lawyers who have also relied on legal experts in the United States and Europe. It bases its case on the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which is binding on 145 countries including the United States.

The six officials in the inquiry are:

• former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
• John Yoo, the Justice Department attorney who authored the infamous “torture memo”
• Jay Bybee, Yoo’s superior at the Office of Legal Counsel, also involved in the creation of torture memos
• David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and legal adviser
• Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy
• William Haynes, the legal counsel at the DoD

The amount of material connecting these six to the creation, authorization and direction of state-sanctioned illegal torture, based on perverse and discredited reasoning, is voluminous, and given the record of Garzon, I would imagine this will lead to arrest warrants.

This story shows once again the growing global unease with the implicit policy of the United States to conveniently forget the torture and other abuses of the Bush regime. In England, police are investigating whether British intelligence officers knew about and prolonged the torture of Binyam Mohamed, the recently released Guantanamo detainee. As Glenn Greenwald notes, other countries have not abandoned their commitment to the rule of law.

As The Guardian reported, the British Government was, in essence, forced into the criminal investigation once government lawyers “referred evidence of possible criminal conduct by MI5 officers to home secretary Jacqui Smith, and she passed it on to the attorney general.” In a country that lives under what is called the “rule of law,” credible evidence of serious criminality makes such an investigation, as The Guardian put it, “inevitable.” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has clearly tried desperately to avoid any such investigation, yet as The Washington Post reported this morning, even he was forced to say in response: “I have always made clear that when serious allegations are made they have got to be investigated.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if our government leaders could make a similar, extremely uncontroversial statement — credible allegations of lawbreaking by our highest political leaders must be investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted? In a country with a minimally healthy political culture, that ought to be about as uncontroversial as it gets. Instead, what we have are political leaders and media stars virtually across the board spouting lawless Orwellian phrases about being “more interested in looking forward than in looking backwards” and not wanting to “criminalize public service.” These apologist manuevers continue despite the fact that, as even conservative Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum recently acknowledged in light of newly disclosed detailed ICRC Reports, “that crimes were committed is no longer in doubt.”

The end of the NY Times article shows why the US can hardly claim that Spain is acting irresponsibly beyond its own borders and violating the soveriegnty of other nations, because in one recent case we did almost exactly the same thing:

The United States for the first time this year used a law that allows for the prosecution in the United States of torture in other countries. On Jan. 10, a Miami court sentenced Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader, to 97 years in a federal prison for torture, even though the crimes were committed in Liberia.

Last October, when the Miami court handed down the conviction, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey applauded the ruling and said: “This is the first case in the United States to charge an individual with criminal torture. I hope this case will serve as a model to future prosecutions of this type.”

So do I.