Famed Spain Judge Convicted Of Misusing Authority

Published February 9, 2012 3:36PM (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 detainees talking to 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 to abuses in such far-flung places as Rwanda and Tibet. Garzon also indicted terror mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Garzon enjoyed rock-star status among rights groups at home and abroad but made many enemies in Spain, especially among judicial colleagues uncomfortable with his celebrity and allegedly corner-cutting tactics in legal procedures and among conservative politicians who say he is more interested in fame than justice.

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 after nearly 40 years of rule under Franco.

The civil war 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.

At both of his trials, small groups of supporters gathered outside the ornate Supreme Court building — a stone's throw from the National Court where he had gained fame over the past decade.

Garzon faces yet more legal woes in Spain. 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.

Thursday's conviction relates to Garzon's decision in 2009 to order wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between lawyers and detainees 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 suspected 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."

Spanish prosecutors have said Garzon committed no crime. The charges against him stem from a complaint filed by lawyers who were taped in prison while visiting their clients. This is a quirk of Spanish law: people can seek to have criminal charges brought against others even if prosecutors disagree.

In the civil war case, prosecutors also say Garzon committed no crime. There, the charges stem from a complaint filed by two small right-wing groups.

After Garzon was indicted and suspended in 2010, he took a six-month job in The Hague at the International Criminal Court as an adviser to its chief prosecutor. After that, he accepted a position as a human rights adviser to the government of Colombia, which is fighting leftist rebels and powerful drug lords. So even if Garzon's career ends in Spain, presumably he could accept another position similar to these.

By Salon Staff

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