Famed Spain Judge Convicted Of Misusing Authority

Published February 9, 2012 3:09PM (EST)

MADRID (AP) — The Spanish judge celebrated for pursuing international human rights cases was convicted of overstepping his jurisdiction in a domestic corruption probe Thursday and barred from the bench for 11 years, completing a spectacular fall from grace for one of Spain's most prominent people.

A seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court convicted Baltasar Garzon unanimously. He is 56, so the punishment could effectively end his career in Spain.

Garzon acted arbitrarily in ordering jailhouse wiretaps of conversations between detainees and their lawyers, the court said, adding that his actions "these days are only found in totalitarian regimes."

Ironically, Garzon is best known for indicting a totalitarian ruler, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in 1998, and trying to put him on trial in Madrid for crimes against humanity.

Garzon acted under the principle of universal jurisdiction — the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere. He and colleagues at the National Court went on to champion this doctrine and try to apply it in such far-flung places as Rwanda and Tibet.

Garzon enjoyed rock-star status among rights groups but made enemies at home, especially among judicial colleagues uncomfortable with his celebrity.

He is still awaiting a verdict in a separate trial on the same charge — knowingly overstepping the bounds of his jurisdiction — for launching a probe in 2008 of right-wing atrocities committed during and after the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939, even though the crimes were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977.

That law came two years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the victor in the war, as Spain moved to restore democracy and rebuild.

The atrocities trial concluded on Wednesday but the verdict is expected to take weeks. Garzon has been suspended from his job at the National Court since 2010 when he was indicted in the civil war case.

Thursday's conviction relates to Garzon's decision in 2009 to order wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between detainees and their lawyers. The detainees are accused of paying off politicians of the now-ruling conservative Popular Party to obtain lucrative government contracts in the Madrid and Valencia regions.

Such wiretaps are expressly allowed in terrorism cases, but Spanish law is more vague on non-terror cases.

Garzon argued that he had ordered the wiretaps because he thought the lawyers were being given instructions by the detainees to launder money.

But the Supreme Court said Thursday that Garzon had no real reason to suspect the lawyers were doing this, and thus his wiretaps were not justified and violated the detainees' right to a fair defense.

The judges wrote that Garzon had engaged in "practices that these days are only found in totalitarian regimes in which anything is considered fair game in order to obtain information that interests, or supposedly interests, the state."

Garzon faces yet more legal woes. He is being probed and could be indicted over his ties with a big Spanish bank that financed human rights seminars he oversaw while on sabbatical in New York in 2005 and 2006.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------