Spain's rights champion is brought down over wire-tap

Fri, Feb 10, 2012, 00:00

THE SPANISH supreme court yesterday found the high-profile magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, guilty of grave abuses of his powers in investigating a corruption case. The judges unanimously decided to disbar him from exercising his profession for 11 years.

Since he is 55, the sentence effectively ends his remarkable career, unless he succeeds in an appeal to the Constitutional Court, which his lawyer said he was considering last night, “in pain and desolation”. He may also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

This verdict came as human rights activists, in Spain and worldwide, were awaiting the outcome of Garzón’s contentious trial by the same court for investigating crimes committed by Gen Francisco Franco’s forces during the 1936-9 civil war and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship. As if that were not enough, judgment is also pending in a third case against him, for accepting bribes from a bank.

The magistrate’s critics regard him at best as a loose canon, at worst as a politically motivated crusader who exclusively targets the political right. He has certainly pushed at the limits of his powers throughout his career, but he is also widely admired as a courageous defender of human rights.

He has investigated, with equal zeal, state terrorism by left-wing Socialist Party (PSOE) administrations against the Basque group Eta, Eta’s own terrorist campaigns, and crimes by the former right-wing Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, whom he famously attempted to extradite from London in 1998.

But it was Garzón himself who was yesterday convicted of abusing the rights of suspects, when he was investigating a major corruption scandal involving senior regional figures from the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), currently in government.

He had authorised the police to listen in on conversations between the suspects and their defence lawyers, arguing that he had reason to believe that they were using their right to communicate in private to plot the laundering of illegal funds.

The supreme court, in an exceptionally strongly worded judgment, found that he had “arbitrarily and substantially restricted the right of defence of the suspects . . . without any minimally acceptable justification”.

They accused him of operating on the principles of a “totalitarian regime . . . where it is held that all means are valid to obtain information that benefits the state.”

The sentence could hardly have been more damaging, and while some senior PP figures limited their comments to calling for respect for all judicial decisions, Esperanza Aguirre, the party’s flamboyant first minister of the Madrid autonomous community, was openly jubilant.

“This is a very happy day for democracy,” she declared, before speculating that Garzón might embark on a second career in left-wing politics.

The PSOE, which is now the main opposition party, was generally cautious in its response, but one leader, Antonio Hernando, probably spoke for many when he said that it was “incomprehensible that this magistrate should be the first to be convicted” in the corruption case he had investigated.

Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left, went much further, describing the verdict as a “monstrous injustice, a lynching and a scandal”.