Crusading Spain judge Garzon himself a defendant


Is it a horrible irony or poetic justice?

For years, Baltasar Garzon has been Spain’s most controversial crusader, a judge on a mission to fight whatever he thinks is an abuse of power wherever he sees it happening. He has used his courtroom here in Madrid to investigate allegations of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to indict Osama bin Laden and, most famously, to go after former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Garzon, 54, is due in court again soon for yet another trial involving an alleged abuse of power.

This time, though, he’s the defendant.

In a case that has divided the nation, Garzon is to be tried before Spain’s highest court on charges that he deliberately overstepped his authority by opening an investigation of atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War, the blood-soaked conflict that propelled Gen. Francisco Franco to power in the 1930s.

The Spanish legal system gives national criminal magistrates such as Garzon wide latitude not just to adjudicate cases but to initiate investigations if they see fit. Garzon has used that platform to embrace the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which holds that certain crimes against humanity, such as torture and genocide, aren’t limited by geography when it comes to pressing charges in a court of law.

The complaint against him in the Franco-era case was filed by right-wing groups who accuse Garzon of flouting an official amnesty covering deaths and disappearances during the long-ago civil war. Equally vociferous are Garzon’s supporters, who have mounted protests in his behalf that have attracted thousands of people, including such well-known figures as filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

Now Garzon’s fate lies in the hands of a court led by a justice who also happens to be one of his critics. If Garzon is found guilty and receives the customary sentence of 20 years’ suspension from the bench, his judicial career would in effect be over.

One of his lawyers worries that it already is.

This month, the high court decided that there was enough evidence for the case to be brought to trial and ordered Garzon suspended in the interim. In a country with an unemployment rate of 20%, he was suddenly its most famous man out of a job.

Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda, an attorney for Garzon, said even the temporary suspension would have a “devastating symbolic effect.”

“If Garzon has to leave with all his boxes from his office, it’s like the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy — there’s no way back,” Martinez-Fresneda said. “It would be a point of no return.”

He described his client as angry and possibly in denial over the whole affair.

“I think deep down, he doesn’t believe it,” Martinez-Fresneda said. “He says maybe he made a mistake, but he acted in good faith.”

By contrast, Garzon’s detractors are unrestrained in their glee.

Miguel Bernad Remon of Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), a right-wing union that was one of the groups behind the complaint, dismisses Garzon’s attempt to launch an investigation of wartime atrocities as “barbaric and foolish” and confidently predicts that he will be found guilty of abuse of authority.

“Garzon’s international image will be dismantled and taken down to the ground,” Bernad Remon said with relish. “He has been using justice for his own benefit and at the service of whatever government was in power.”

There’s no question that Garzon’s brand of justice is unusual, though not unique.

It was by asserting the universal jurisdiction principle that he requested Pinochet’s arrest and extradition to Spain on charges of human rights violations. Though the extradition never took place, the arrest did, in London in 1998, and stunned the world. (Pinochet died in 2006 in Chile.)

Garzon became an international figure, admired by some who see him as a judge unafraid to take grand stands, lambasted by others who see him as a judge given to grandstanding.

Antonio Remiro Brotons, a law professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, says it’s a bit of both.

“Garzon has been a symbol of many things for many years. He’s a judge who has been very openly strengthening the idea of [judicial] independence from any political party,” Remiro Brotons said. “He has a media profile, and he needs media like a lion needs meat.... That has made him friends and enemies.”

The latter group has repeatedly looked for ways to knock Garzon off his perch.

In addition to the case regarding the Spanish Civil War, Garzon has two other investigations pending against him in the high court, which is the only court that can try a Spanish judge.

In one, he stands accused of taking money from a company involved in a case before him. The other centers on his decision to order the secret recording of conversations between defendants and their lawyers in a political corruption trial, an action that shocked many of his colleagues, who saw it as a dangerous erosion of defendants’ rights.

But it was Garzon’s move two years ago to look into atrocities committed during the civil war that caused the biggest furor in a land where history sits uneasily. Many Spaniards feel that their country’s past has never undergone a full and necessary reckoning, whitewashed instead by the amnesty law.

“The question that Garzon was always asked is: ‘Why are you prosecuting Pinochet, why are you going after the Argentinean dictators, why are you after the Nazis, but you’re not investigating the war crimes committed in Spain?’” Martinez-Fresneda said.

Garzon’s suspension will keep him from reopening that chapter of Spanish history.

But the judge who inspires so much passion on both sides may yet be free to pursue his vision of an overarching justice that knows no borders.

This week, the Spanish high court said there was nothing to prevent Garzon from taking up a temporary job offer — as a consultant to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.