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Garzón, the PP, and a Byzantine justice system

The lawsuit against Spain’s best-known judge for investigating Franco-era crimes has bewildered many observers. However, the reasons for the current three-pronged legal assault on Garzón lie in the machinations of a politicised judiciary.


Baltasar Garzón: paying the price for justice. Photo by Ukberri.

As growing numbers of people around the world will know by now, investigating magistrate Baltasar Garzón is in hot water. The man best-known for having ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet in 1998 is being investigated by his colleagues in the Supreme Court on three counts. If found guilty, his career will be over. There is something of a whiff of conspiracy about this sudden fall from grace.

The first investigation is into accusations that he dropped tax fraud charges against executives of Banco Santander in return for $302,000-worth of sponsorship by the bank for a series of lectures on human rights he gave at New York University in 2003. This hearing is currently underway.

The second disciplinary hearing will take place next month, and relates to a ruling that he overstepped his authority in investigating the crimes of the Franco era, deliberately ignoring a 1977 amnesty that absolved all those associated with the military regime of human rights abuses.

The idea that Garzón could lose his job for looking into crimes that nobody denies took place —and the purpose of which is largely to allow the relatives of those murdered by Franco’s henchmen and dumped in mass graves to give their loved ones a decent burial— has prompted concern and puzzlement both among many Spaniards and abroad.

But the key to understanding why Garzón’s career is on the line lies in the third accusation he faces: that he has illegally recorded conversations held in prison between those at the centre of the Gürtel corruption case and his lawyer. Garzón, who led the probe into the case, charges that the lawyers were effectively acting as messengers for the criminals, who were involved in a widespread and deep-rooted kickbacks-for-contracts ring closely linked to the Popular Party.

Disgruntled neo-fascists

Dispiriting though the efforts to prevent Garzón investigating the crimes of the Franco era may be —let’s not forget that the pro-Franco, neo-fascist Falange party is one of the plaintiffs— the real issue here is that the three lawsuits, each in their own way, are part of a bid by his political enemies within the Popular Party and its appointees within the judiciary to close the investigation into the Gürtel case.

It should not be forgotten that over the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will also be deciding whether to accept an appeal against the exoneration of Francisco Camps, the head of the PP in Valencia, on corruption charges by that region’s highest court, as well as looking into charges of bribery against former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas.

If the attorney general’s appeal against the decision is accepted and the case is tried in the Madrid Supreme Court, Camps’ career will be on the line, as well as the outcome of next year’s regional elections in Valencia. The repercussions of the Bárcenas case are potentially more devastating for the PP. If found guilty, his status as the party’s longstanding treasurer (until he was forced to resign last year) would imply that systematic financing fraud was employed from the very top of the party.

Ever since Gürtel hit the headlines, the PP has been desperately trying to block the investigation, most notably through the party’s justice spokesman, Federico Trillo.

But the PP’s approach is very much in line with its tribal political stance in recent years. In its desperate refusal to accept having misled Spaniards in the immediate aftermath of the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks, insisting against mounting evidence and logic that ETA was responsible, members of the party were prepared to discredit the police, the Civil Guard, and the security services.

Now it’s the judiciary’s turn. The body that oversees the legal system in Spain is the General Council of the Judiciary, or the CGPJ. It is made up of 20 senior members of the legal profession who are appointed by Congress and the Senate, and a president, who is also head of the Supreme Court.

Over the years, dozens of complaints have been made against the divisive and provocative Garzón, and the Supreme Court has thrown each of them out until now. The reason? It lies in the Byzantine machinations of the CGPJ.

When Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office in May 2004, he came up against a CGPJ dominated by PP appointees and which in turn was doing all it could to ensure conservative candidates sat on the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court.

During the previous two legislatures, headed by the PP government of José María Aznar, eight conservatives had been appointed, and three self-denominated progressives.

Manic horse-trading

Zapatero’s solution did little to help matters. A change to the law now required that candidates for the Supreme Court and for the heads of its five chambers, be ratified by a qualified majority of 13 out of the CGPJ’s 21 members. The result has been frenzied horse-trading between the two professional associations, one conservative, the other left-leaning, that most of the CGPJ’s members belong to.

The eight conservatives appointed during the Aznar era continue to influence the CGPJ. Of the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court’s 15 members, nine are conservatives, and the other six left-leaning. The imbalance will be tilted further in favour of the conservatives if, as expected, Antonio del Moral, a member of the right-wing Catholic organization Opus Dei, is approved in exchange for left-leaning Miguel Ángel Gimeno being appointed as president of the Supreme Court of Catalonia.

Prompted by the ongoing judicial investigations led by judge Garzón into the Gürtel case, as well as illegal financing at a national level, the PP has taken advantage of its weight in the CGPJ and the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court to discredit Garzón, and have the cases dropped.

It is using the same strategy that it employed in the 1990s to try to block a judicial investigation into the so-called ‘Naseiro’ affair, again involving illegal financing.

If the PP can definitively end Garzón’s career, have him disbarred, and bring to an end a 23-year career in pursuit of justice that has seen him tackle ETA, drug trafficking, and white-collar crime, so much the better, it believes. Otherwise, it will be hoping that it will be enough to discredit him by having him hauled up three times before the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, those opposed to this harassment of the judge are dismayed not just at his situation, but also at the image of a justice system that is such a blatant hostage to politics.

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Published: Apr 19 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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