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Spanish justice on trial in Garzón case

Finacial Times, Editorial February 14 6:57am

Tuesday 14 February 2012, by Carlos San Juan


Spanish justice on trial in Garzón case

An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of a free and fair society. That is why the conviction last week of Baltasar Garzón, the investigating magistrate who took on terrorists, tyrants and political corruption, should ring alarm bells in Madrid and beyond. The relentless pursuit of Mr Garzón, whose troubles began when he ignored a national amnesty to investigate atrocities during the Franco dictatorship, bears the mark of politically-inspired vengeance.

Mr Garzón is a divisive figure. He is a hero to human rights activists for his drive to uncover abuses around the world. His attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet helped to define the principle of universal jurisdiction. But he has also made enemies in the judiciary, where his ego and grandstanding have raised hackles, and in the political class. His revelations of state-sponsored death squads helped to bring down the Socialist government in the 1990s. This week’s conviction was linked to actions during an inquiry into corruption among the regional barons of the ruling centre-right Popular party.

The charges are serious. Mr Garzón was found to have exceeded his authority by taping discussions between lawyers and their clients, suspected of laundering money in one of Spain’s biggest political corruption cases. Wire-tapping is legal in terrorist cases, but the law is less clear on other offences. What gives ground for discomfort is the fact that when the inquiry was transferred to Madrid, both the new judge and the state prosecutor approved the wire-tapping order, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet only he was charged.

No public official should be allowed to break the law. But the fact that Mr Garzón was singled out raises suspicions about the motives and methods used against him. Moreover, it is extremely rare to use the criminal process to sanction a judge. Yet last week’s conviction was only the first verdict in three criminal cases brought against Mr Garzón. All had been rejected by the public prosecutor as without basis, yet the Supreme Court allowed them to go ahead.

The main case – brought by two fringe far right groups – is that Mr Garzón ignored a 1977 amnesty law when in 2008 he briefly investigated the disappearance of more than 100,000 people during and after the Spanish civil war. Yet the UN says this amnesty contravenes international law and must be repealed. There is no place for amnesty or amnesia when it comes to crimes against humanity. The mass graves now being uncovered testify to the need for an accounting of Spain’s violent past, even if this reopens old political divisions.

Mr Garzón’s career as a crusading magistrate is already over, even before the ruling on his pursuit of long-dead Francoists. But his is not the real tragedy. It is the damage done to the independence of Spain’s judiciary. Mr Garzón is now likely to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. There, Spain will have to answer the pressing question of how targeting a courageous public servant advances the cause of justice.

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