Spain court convicts Judge Baltasar Garzon, known for rights cases

Spain's most famous judge, heralded abroad for seeking to put dictators behind bars, was found guilty Thursday of overstepping his authority in a corruption investigation here.

Baltasar Garzon won global fame for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. He's been dubbed a "dictator hunter" abroad for championing the principle of universal jurisdiction, the idea that some crimes are so heinous that they deserve to be investigated, no matter where or when.

But his crusade hit a snag Thursday in Spain. The country's Supreme Court convicted Garzon of misusing his authority while investigating corruption allegations involving figures in Spain's now-ruling conservative party.

The high court barred Garzon, 56, from the bench for 11 years, a decision that cannot be appealed and that in effect ends his career in Spain because he will be past retirement age when the suspension ends.

But it's unclear what effect, if any, the ruling will have on Garzon's international work. He has served as an advisor to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and has investigated political crimes and genocide in Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Rwanda and Tibet.

Garzon even tried to investigate allegations that former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales authorized torture of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case was dropped amid fierce American diplomatic pressure.

"Judge Garzon is still a heroic figure in many parts of the world, and he's not going to have difficulty finding people who want to use his investigative skills," said Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with Human Rights Watch who knows the judge personally and traveled to Madrid to watch his trial.

Garzon's conviction came in one of three trials. He is awaiting a verdict in a case that wrapped up Wednesday, involving his investigation of more than 100,000 deaths and disappearances dating to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. Garzon is accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law that prohibits investigations of political crimes from the war and the nearly 40-year military dictatorship that followed.

A trial has yet to begin in the third matter, which involves alleged payments from a Spanish bank. It is the only case that carries the possibility of jail time if Garzon is convicted.

Garzon's job as an investigative judge at Spain's National Court was like that of a U.S. district attorney. For years he helped put drug barons, Basque terrorists and corrupt politicians behind bars.

In 2009, Garzon ordered wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between inmates and their lawyers as part of a larger corruption investigation involving the conservative Popular Party.

Garzon's hunch was right, and one of the lawyers was indicted. But the seven-member Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that those wiretaps were illegal.

Brody said some of Garzon's colleagues backed his decision to order the wiretaps.

"There are many judges who agreed that it was proper for Judge Garzon to do what he did," Brody said. "Yet he's the one who is being prosecuted for it."

Frayer is a special correspondent.

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