By Eloise Horsfield
LOATHED by some and idolised by others, the controversial ‘superjudge’ Baltasar Garzon is unquestionably the most famous magistrate in Spain.
He shot to prominence following his expert management of deeply polemical cases – including the arrest of Chilean despot General Pinochet.
Yet now the human rights judge finds himself in the dock at Madrid’s Supreme Court, with a whopping three separate cases against him.
If convicted in any, Garzon could be struck off for 20 years – bringing his much-debated judicial career to an undignified close.
This would be devastating news to those who view Garzon as a beacon of hope in the global fight against political injustice, but a welcome development to others who believe his meddlesome ways are hindering Spain’s chances of shaking off its past.
Having exposed corrupt politicians, drugs barons, terrorists – and international dictators – it is hardly surprising that Garzon has so many foes who would give their right arm to see him jailed.
Before we consider what he stands accused of, let us look at what made him a household name.
Garzon became a magistrate at one of Spain’s highest courts, the Audencia Nacional, at the age of 32.
Decidedly left-wing, and from a working-class Andalucian family, he was a radical newcomer in a court that was yet to recover from a lengthy right-wing dictatorship.
Many people would give their right arm to see him go to prison
Hard-working, determined and astute, his attitude was the antithesis of the normal approach to legal matters in Spain, where trials can take decades to come to court and legal figures are easily corrupted.
He immediately made an impression, doggedly investigating a dirty Socialist-funded operation against Basque separatist group ETA in the 1980s, which hired foreign mercenaries to kill suspected terrorists.
Sadly the group got it wrong on many occasions, kidnapping and murdering many innocents.
Working relentlessly on the case, Garzon’s efforts led to the conviction of two police officers along with several members of the Socialist government for the 27 murders.
Garzon then exposed more and more white-collar Spanish criminals, causing the imprisonment of many a sinner, such as corrupt former Marbella mayor Jesus Gil.
His reputation as a fighter for justice was beginning to take shape.
Garzon’s most famous achievement, however, was issuing an international warrant for the arrest of former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who was detained in London in October 1998 for human rights violations during his suppressive 17-year regime.
Although the Chilean was later released and died without a single conviction, these events inspired victims of atrocities throughout Latin America to challenge draconian and murderous leaders past and present – securing Garzon’s worldwide name as a human rights guru.
The ‘superjudge’ continued to use international human rights laws to jail criminals in all sorts of groundbreaking cases, including an Argentinean navy captain who had disposed of prisoners by drugging them and throwing them into the sea.
So, why is Garzon now in the dock himself?
The first case against him is due to his involvement in the Gurtel investigation, which looked into corruption within the PP party.
The enquiry centred on a group of businessmen from Valencia and Madrid who had forged links with the party and allegedly entered into illicit activities such as bribery, money laundering, dodgy party funding and tax evasion.
The case led to the arrest of five suspects in 2009, with ringleader Francisco Correa still in prison today thanks to an exorbitant 15 million-euro bail offer.
But the pioneering Garzon was removed from the case after he was found to have recorded private conversations between lawyers and their detained clients while in prison, thereby sowing the seeds for the first criminal trial against him.
“Just because a judge is investigating a crime doesn’t mean that he can do whatever he wants,” insisted one of the tapped lawyers.
Another case alleges that Garzon accepted payments from the boss of Santander Bank in exchange for throwing out a case against him.
The third case, however, is the most divisive.
Garzon is accused of abusing his powers by investigating the deaths of 113,000 people during and after the Spanish Civil War under Franco’s regime.
The private prosecution – two far-right groups Falange Espanola and Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), claims that Garzon deliberately overstepped the mark, since these crimes were protected by Spain’s 1977 amnesty law.
Garzon argues that, as well as the fact an amnesty law should not be valid for crimes against humanity, it does not apply because the crimes are still ongoing.
That is, those who disappeared inexplicably under Franco have often still not been found, and therefore their kidnappings can quite justifiably be looked into now.
The relatives of those killed under Franco – many of whose bodies are only just beginning to be dug up in mass graves – are desperate for closure.
Right-wing groups, however, are keener to leave things be.
“We don’t want to look into the past,” says former PP Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. “We want to look forward. Let’s not disturb the graves.”
What is clear is that the topic of investigating these deaths under Franco is highly polemic, and constitutes ‘one of the most sensitive issues of contemporary Spain’ according to British journalist Giles Tremlett, who has written widely on Garzon.
“It’s not surprising that, of all the things he’s dealt with, this should be the one to get him into trouble,” he said.
The question is whether Garzon is being tried fairly, or whether he is a victim of a persecution campaign.
His supporters fear is that he is being targeted because of his innovative use of international human rights laws, and because the far right want to silence him.
As such, human rights groups have sent representatives to monitor his trial.
“The Garzon case is simply scandalous and unacceptable,” says an Amnesty International spokesman.
“The charges should be dropped. This case affects the independence of judicial power in Spain.”
His adversaries, however, see it differently: they believe that Garzon has taken one step too far in what they consider a personal battle to stay in the limelight, in a matter of ‘personal vanity’.
“He has scorned the prestige of other lawyers,” says Miguel Bernad of right-wing prosecutors Clean Hands.
“His crime is abuse of power. And that will be his tomb.”
Garzon Q+A – ‘Cancer’ in the Spanish justice system, or worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize? You decide:
Who is he?
A judge at Spain’s Audencia Nacional who has spent many years working as an investigative magistrate but is currently suspended.
What is an investigative magistrate?
A powerful judge, who prepares trials by helping with police inquiries, deciding whether there is a case to be answered and choosing whether suspects should be jailed, bailed or charged.
What is he accused of?
Firstly, illegal phone-tapping during an investigation into corruption within the PP party, secondly, investigating deaths under Franco covered by an amnesty, and thirdly, accepting a bribe from Santander Bank.
Who adores him, and why?
He has a huge following among human rights activists for exposing wrongdoers worldwide. He has been hailed as a hero by the relatives of those killed by Franco’s death squads, for attempting to open an investigation into them. For many he has set new precedents for the way atrocities are exposed. Fans fight every year to get him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Who hates him, and why?
Garzon has many enemies. Right-wing groups within Spain accuse him of opening up the can of worms that is Spain’s past, and for blaming the Falange for 113,000 unaccounted disappearances during Franco’s dictatorship. Miguel Bernad of prosecuting group Clean Hands describes Garzon as a ‘cancer inside Spanish justice’. Garzon is also famously disliked among his colleagues, who accuse him of being vain and of chasing the limelight. Many in the Socialist party haven’t forgiven him for probing government support for an anti-ETA death squad waged by mercenaries in the 1980s. Despite this, ex-PSOE PM Felipe Gonzalez has called Garzon’s current situation ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘unjust’.
How likely is it he will be convicted?
Only time will tell. Garzon has said publicly that he thinks justice will prevail and he will be acquitted, but he is thought to believe privately that fellow judges are determined to find him guilty.