Spain's National Court on Tuesday issued warrants for the arrest of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and four other officials as part of a probe into alleged genocide in Tibet.
The court said it accepted arguments from Spanish pro-Tibet rights groups that international reports indicate that the five may have had a role in human rights abuses and should be questioned.
But the accused are thought unlikely to ever stand trial, with the arrest warrants serving a largely symbolic purpose.
In addition to Jiang, the Chinese politicians wanted by Spain are former Prime Minister Li Peng; former security and police chief Qiao Shi; Chen Kuiyan, a former Communist Party official in Tibet; and Pen Pelyun, an ex-family planning minister. None has been formally charged.
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao is also under investigation, although Spain has not said it seeks his arrest.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said during a regular briefing Wednesday that Beijing firmly opposes the court's move and urged Spain to repair "the severe damage." Hong says Madrid should respect China's stance on Tibet and not harm China-Spain relations.
"China's position on Tibet-related issues is consistent and clear, and the West understands it," he said.
Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Madrid did not immediately comment on the court's decision.
China has described the Spanish probe into Tibet as interference into its affairs and called the claims "sheer fabrication."
Alan Cantos, president of Spain's Tibet Support Committee, which first pressed for the investigation in 2008, expressed satisfaction with the court decision but was not overly optimistic that anyone would be brought to trial.
"It's not easy, but it's a big step," Cantos told The Associated Press. "They are stuck in their own country, and a competent court is pointing the finger at them. It's so they don't have it too easy."
The court must process the arrest orders via the international police organization Interpol.
Spain's legal system recognizes the universal justice principle, under which genocide suspects can be put on trial outside their home country.
The policy allowed former Judge Baltasar Garzon to try to chase the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
But in practice, very few probes have seen people brought to trial in Spain. Meanwhile, the investigations have irked some countries, most notably China and Israel, and led to accusations that Spain was behaving like a global policeman.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press