Originally published on Mar 18th, 2012
Three trials concerning accusations of corruption and abuse of office have been taken against crusading Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, known internationally for his work investigating crimes against humanity. The verdict of one trial, delivered last week by the same seven judge panel that is hearing the other cases against Garzon, resulted in an eleven year disbarment order, with no recourse for appeal. Was it a case of the law being fairly applied irrespective of status or is it a political witch hunt against a man who many view as a political nuisance?
Mr. Garzon is primarily known for his investigations into drug trafficking, terrorism and crimes against humanity. He first came to international prominence in 1998 when he used the principle of universal justice to issue an international arrest warrant for former Chilean President, General Augusto Pinochet. On the strength of Garzon’s warrant, Pinochet was apprehended in London. Although eventually released from house arrest without having stood trial for alleged war crimes, Pinochet’s apprehension was a major milestone for international criminal law.
Dark shadows of the civil war
Although celebrated internationally, Garzon is considered a divisive figure in Spain. His attempts to investigate Franco-era abuses have made him unpopular in the country which remains largely uninterested in examining its own past.
During Spain’s brutal Civil War, between 1936-39, and the ensuing years of General Franco’s dictatorship, thousands of Spaniards were forcibly disappeared and summarily executed; historians generally concur the figure of those disappeared to have been at least 100,000, with some claiming it could be as high as 200,000. Most of the victims were buried in unmarked, mass graves.
It is a dark chapter in Spain’s history, one that the country has continually ignored for decades. General Franco died in 1975. Two years later an amnesty law was passed, applicable to any person complicit in Franco-era crimes and atrocities. The victims remained buried in mass graves and the perpetrators got on with their lives. Roughly 50% of Spaniards reported never speaking about the Civil war and its legacy at home; close to 40% say they were never taught about it at school.
In the early 2000s, small groups of volunteers, mostly the descendants of victims, began efforts to locate mass graves and exhume and identify the remains found. They received no state assistance but persevered nonetheless, usually at great financial and personal cost. In 2007, a half hearted attempt at legal recognition for victims, the Law of Historical Memory, was passed but was widely criticised across the political spectrum; some said it went too far, others said it did not go far enough. It did, however, open historical archives and revealed the existence of 2,000 mass graves around the country.
Investigating the investigator
In 2008, Judge Garzon launched an investigation into Franco-era atrocities. He argued his investigation was aimed at determining if the mass disappearances and executions constituted crimes against humanity; if they did, according to international criminal law they would be considered too great an offence for the perpetrators to receive an amnesty and attempts at prosecution could be made.
Last week’s Supreme Court verdict which resulted in Garzon’s disbarment for eleven years is actually the result of another trial, where Garzon was accused of abusing his authority by ordering the wire tapping of lawyer-client communications, during the course of a political corruption case. As Spanish law allows, the case against Garzon was taken by a private individual, not the state prosecutor. In fact the state prosecutor petitioned the Supreme Court to throw out the case against Garzon, arguing the case had no legal grounding, inadequate evidence and displayed worrying signs of being politically motivated.
Supreme Court Justice Alberto Jorge claims the interception of lawyer-client communications violates the clients right to a legal defence and the lawyers right to privacy. Garzon refutes this claim, pointing out the clients communications were intercepted but not the lawyer’s replies and the interceptions were made due to well founded suspicions that the lawyers were passing on instructions for criminal activity from their clients. Under these circumstances Garzon’s actions were legal.
The Verdict and Outcome
Garzon’s supporters claim the trial is politically motivated and aimed at punishing the Judge for probing Spain’s past. In Thursday’s verdict, the ruling compared Garzon’s actions to those “only found in totalitarian regimes,” The comment was viewed by many as an obtuse reference to Franco and an intentional slight to Garzon. Garzon has also questioned the impartiality of the judges, claiming their hearing concurrent cases against him are prejudicial to proceedings. Many legal experts have also questioned the validity of the trial in the first place. Philippe Sands, who teaches international law at University College in London, commented on the case “To sanction a possible breach of ethics or misconduct is up to the professional organizations,” Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch has been monitoring the trial and remarked that the “accumulation of cases” against Garzon indicated “reprisal for his past actions against vested interests.”
Even if one accepts the verdict on Garzon to be a fair and impartial judgement, the sentence also denied him the right to appeal, which is harder to justify. He may, and indeed probably will, appeal to the European Court of Human Rights but it will be years before his case is heard. It seems Spain’s status quo may relax; their greatest political nuisance has been silenced.