The leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau
Madrid (AFP) - A Spanish High Court judge said Thursday he is opening a probe into Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram and its leader Abubakar Shekau for suspected crimes against humanity and terrorism.
Judge Fernando Andreu ruled he is competent to handle the case under the principle of universal jurisdiction since it concerns a Spanish nun and no other investigation into the affair is under way.
The case refers to an attack by Boko Haram in the village of Ganye in northeastern Nigeria in March 2013, in which Spanish prosecutors say the nun was subject to harassment and coercion at the hands of the group.
Spanish public prosecutors argued in their lawsuit, which was accepted by the judge, that the attack was part of "a generalised context of actions of a terrorist nature by the jihadist organisation".
"Many civilians, especially women and children, have been killed, kidnapped and forcibly recruited by Boko Haram. The culprits must answer for their acts before the courts," the lawsuit added.
The judge ordered the authorities to locate the nun so she can be questioned and asked Interpol and the United Nations to provide information on Boko Haram.
The nun managed to escape Nigeria with the aid of the African nation's intelligence services and returned to Spain.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in Nigeria during a six-year insurgency to carve out an Islamic caliphate. It has also staged cross-border attacks in Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
The Islamist uprising has left more than 15,000 people dead since 2009 and forced another 1.5 million from their homes.
Boko Haram gained global notoriety last year when it snatched more than 200 girls from their school dormitories in the northeastern town of Chibok, sparking an international outcry.
Amnesty International estimates Boko Haram militants have kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls in northeastern Nigeria since the beginning of 2014.
- 'Despicable acts' -
Boko Haram controlled an area roughly the size of Belgium at the start of the year but has since been beaten back by Nigeria's military, backed by its neighbours. Violence has however continued, including attacks on civilians.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week he was deeply troubled by Boko Haram's "continuing indiscriminate and horrific attacks" against civilians and abduction of children.
"The perpetrators of these despicable acts must be brought to justice," he said.
Spain has been considered a pioneer in the pursuit of universal jurisdiction, which allows courts to try certain atrocities committed in other countries.
Former judge Baltasar Garzon famously used the legal principle to try to prosecute former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But last year Spain's conservative government passed a reform to restrict courts' powers to apply universal jurisdiction by stipulating that a Spanish victim or perpetrator must be involved.
"It's great that there will finally be a judicial enquiry" into Boko Haram, the chief prosecutor at the High Court, Javier Zaragoza, told AFP.
"What the group has done is barbaric," he said, before adding he would like to see the International Criminal Court open its own investigation into Boko Haram.
The Hague-based global war crimes court has the task of investigating and prosecuting the most serious international crimes if local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so.
It has been examining the Nigerian violence with a view to opening a possible investigation since 2010.
Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, who will be sworn in on Friday, has put the fight against the Boko Haram insurgents at the top of his agenda.