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Baltasar Garzón: a judge too far?

Spain’s most famous and reviled magistrate has gone into exile. After years spent tackling big cases, his attempts to probe the crimes of the Franco era appear to have brought his career in Spain to a premature end.

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On Monday May 24, judge Baltasar Garzón began a seven-month stint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

The move came 10 days after an emotional farewell from the Spanish High Court, where for the last 22 years he has presided over some of the country’s most infamous cases.

He was suspended from his duties in Madrid after his nemesis, Luciano Varela, the presiding Supreme Court judge whose enmity toward Garzón is no secret, hastily brought forward trial proceedings into allegations that the magistrate had overstepped his authority by investigating the crimes of the Franco era.

Varela’s decision was widely seen as a deliberate move to humiliate Garzón by preventing a hearing of the judge’s request to be granted leave of absence to join the ICC in an official capacity.

In the event, Garzón has taken up a post as a consultant to the Hague court’s chief prosecutor, the Argentine Luis Moreno Ocampo, with whom he enjoys a good relationship.

Garzón’s image

Garzón will not be brought to trial in Madrid until after the summer recess, in September at the earliest. If he is found guilty, Varela could suspend the 54-year-old for between 10 and 20 years, effectively ending his career.

Garzón’s suspension stems from his 2008 investigation into the Franco regime’s crimes, especially those involving forced disappearances and mass kidnapping of the children of jailed Republicans.

This shameful and shabby affair has been amply covered in the international media, which has rightly highlighted the bitter irony of the case: that it was a complaint filed by a tiny neo-fascist group that set the ball rolling.

It has also been rightly pointed out that Spain has failed to come to terms with its past: a 1977 amnesty has meant that those responsible for the crimes in question could not be punished. The men responsible are now long dead. There is no question of anybody being brought before a court. What Garzón was also seeking to do was find a way for Spain’s legal system and public institutions to address requests by family members of victims of the repression for their relatives’ remains, still buried in the thousands of mass graves across the country, to be located.

Enemies in high places

Garzón’s high-profile approach, which has seen him deliberately seek out the most controversial cases, has won him few friends over the years. The son of a petrol station attendant in Jaén, Garzón entered the High Court in 1988, making a name for himself with his relentless pursuit of prominent politicians, businessmen, ETA, Al Qaeda, drug traffickers, and most notably, former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, whose arrest he ordered in 1998.

By then Garzón had become a symbol of the concept of “universal justice”, which deems that there is no hiding place for wrongdoers.

Over the years he has been wooed by the Socialists and the Popular Party: the former tried to co-opt him by giving him a junior ministerial post in 1993. He held it only briefly before returning to the High Court and investigating the Socialists’ dirty war against ETA from several years earlier. His findings contributed to the Popular Party winning the 1996 elections. They in turn warmed to his approach in cracking down on ETA, but then found themselves the subject of his scrutiny – most recently through his pursuit of corruption scandals in the party.

He has looked into the affairs of the country’s two biggest banks, BBVA and Santander, only to find himself accused of receiving financial aid from the latter for lectures delivered in the United States in 2003 in return for dropping tax charges against the bank’s senior executives. He currently awaits a disciplinary hearing on this matter as well.

Having trodden on so many toes over the years, and given the open enmity he faces from many of his colleagues, Garzón can hardly be surprised at what has happened. It was a long time coming. He has touched on the hostility toward him in his 2005 book, Un mundo sin miedo (or A world without fear). But until now, despite the scrapes he has gotten into, he has always managed to weather the storm and hold onto his post.

But there is a feeling this time that he has finally been cornered: he will be tied up for at least a year by the three investigations into his conduct (the third is a big one: that he illegally recorded conversations held in prison between one of those at the centre of the Popular Party’s Gürtel corruption case and his lawyer; Garzón charges that the lawyers were effectively acting as messengers). This time, it seems that enough mud has been thrown at him for some of it to stick.

Born to judge

Garzón likes to portray himself as a judge by vocation, a man born to play a specific role in life, and one that has meant much sacrifice. By his own account he is uninterested in moving up the judicial hierarchy, and even if Garzón had been trying to move his career on, he has been blocked at every turn by his colleagues.

Hoping to make Spain a world leader in applying universal justice, Garzón’s partial success in detaining Pinochet was followed by further investigations into the Chilean dictatorship, along with Argentina’s. He has said he wants to investigate Henry Kissinger for the US’s role in supporting the two Southern Cone countries’ dictatorships in the 1970s. He has tried to indict six senior officials from the Bush administration for their involvement in sanctioning torture at Guantánamo Bay, as well as going after Israel for alleged war crimes committed in Gaza. He also summoned Chinese government ministers to testify about the crackdown on protests in Tibet.

A move to the International Criminal Court of The Hague would have been the logical next step, particularly after the government and the judiciary made it clear that that the legal system here had enough on its hands dealing with home-grown crime. But Garzón had also gotten in his teeth into the Gürtel affair, and one suspects that he wasn’t prepared to walk away from it.

Garzón is now a judge without a license. He cannot practice his trade, and won’t be able to, even if he survives the three cases against him, for at least a year. And would he want to do so in Spain anyway? For the moment he has seven months ahead of him at The Hague as a consultant, a post he may have to get used to in the longer term.





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Published: May 25 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1088
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1 Comment for “Baltasar Garzón: a judge too far?”

  1. "Having trodden on so many toes over the years, and given the open enmity he faces from many of his colleagues…" Garzón should remember that the toes he trod on yesterday might be attached to the backside he will have to kiss tomorrow.

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