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02.09.12

Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s Legal Crusader, Silenced

Judge Baltasar Garzón, famous for persecuting human-rights violations as far away as Argentina and the U.S., has been disbarred for ordering illegal wiretaps. Mike Elkin reports.

Spain’s most well-known and controversial judge will likely never investigate or try another case again in his native country. On Thursday, the Spanish Supreme Court unanimously ruled that judge Baltasar Garzón, famous for indicting Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, ordered illegal wiretaps to record conversations between an indicted suspect and his lawyer as part of a political corruption investigation known in Spain as the Gurtel case.

A panel of seven judges removed Garzón from the bench for 11 years, effectively ending the 56-year-old’s career as an investigating magistrate for the Spanish High Court.

Garzón argued that the wiretaps were necessary because the defendants, in preventative prison, continued to operate their money-laundering schemes from jail through their lawyers. This assessment was confirmed during the trial by four members of the police’s financial crimes division. Even the Spanish prosecutor’s office wanted the case thrown out. But Spanish law allows private prosecution, which successfully convinced the court that Garzón had crossed the line.

Likening Garzón’s methods to those of a totalitarian regime, the court wrote in its verdict that Garzón “caused...a drastic and unjustified reduction of the right to a defense.”

Garzón’s supporters in the Spanish and international legal community have argued that a legal error by a judge can be overturned on appeal, but putting a judge on trial for his or her interpretation of the law is a miscarriage of justice and will deter magistrates from making difficult decisions if they fear criminal consequences.

But Spanish law includes the crime of knowingly overstepping legal limits. The last case of its type was a few years ago when a judge refused to allow a homosexual couple to adopt a child, despite the law that allows it.

The judge’s enemies call him a jet-setting media whore.

“You can imagine [how Garzón is feeling],” his lawyer, Francisco Baena, told the press after the verdict. “He dedicated his whole life to the justice system and suddenly they tell you it’s over. He is devastated.”

Garzón’s supporters consider him a beacon of human rights and universal jurisdiction. Under this principle, Garzón requested Pinochet’s arrest and extradition to Spain for crimes against humanity during his military rule. Garzón also went after members of Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed around 825 people over the past 43 years, and he investigated state-sponsored death squads in Spain that targeted ETA in the 1980s. His cases involved human-rights violations in Colombia, Rwanda, Tibet, and the United States—he once opened an inquiry into war crimes under the Bush administration.

The judge’s enemies, however, call him a jet-setting media whore who takes high-profile, international cases for the limelight and the high public-speaking fees. His brief foray into politics in the mid-1990s also soured his reputation with many Spaniards.

Baena said that he and his client will now study whether to appeal to the Constitutional Court, Spain’s highest, or to the European Court of Human Rights.

An appeal will not be the end to Garzón’s troubles, as he is facing another conviction concerning an investigation into Spain’s violent past. Some see this case as the driving force behind the legal actions against him.

The judicial floodgates opened in 2008 when Garzón opened an investigation into crimes committed by the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, despite an amnesty law that was passed in 1977 as the country transitioned into democracy.

Attending to claims filed by families whose relatives were “disappeared” during the 1936-1939 Civil War and the post-war cleansing by Franco’s forces, Garzón declared his office competent to investigate because, he reasoned, missing persons cases do not expire nor do they fall under the amnesty law. A preliminary study found that over 110,000 Spaniards are still missing, likely executed and buried in unmarked mass graves. Over the past decade, volunteer groups have crossed the country helping towns unearth the graves without any support from Spanish authorities.

The High Court overturned this decision, referring the missing persons cases to local courts. The case appeared closed until an ultra-conservative syndicate of the Spanish Fascist party (the same one Franco belonged to) filed a claim against Garzón for opening an investigation that he knew was not in his jurisdiction. Spanish prosecutors requested that this case too be thrown out, but the Supreme Court admitted the private claim.

The verdict in the Civil War trial is still pending, but the wiretapping conviction makes that case almost redundant. Since his indictment, Garzón has worked as an advisor to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. His professional exile, it appears, has been made permanent.