Profile: Baltasar Garzon

Spanish judge best known for pursuing human rights violators finds himself answering charges of abusing authority.

Baltasar Garzon 4
Garzon could be barred from practicing law for 20 years if found guilty [Andrea Comas/Reuters]

Baltasar Garzon is a Spanish judge whose dogged pursuit of human rights violators, both at home and abroad, earned him international fame.

Born in 1955, in the midst of the notoriously brutal reign of General Francisco Franco, Garzon began his career early, becoming a provincial judge at 23.

By the age of 32 he had became one of the youngest magistrates in Spain’s national court.

In his new role, he went to work investigating the GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups), who, backed by government officials, were responsible for the extrajudicial killings of dozens of people, many affiliated with the Basque separatist ETA movement.

The case eventually led to the conviction of Jose Barrionuevo, a former interior minister, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the GAL.

Pinochet detained

Garzon rose to international prominence in 1998, when he ordered the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean military ruler who was receiving medical treatment in London.

Pinochet was detained for 18 months before being released by then UK Interior Minister Jack Straw, citing the former dictator’s poor health.

Pinochet, who seized power in a coup in 1973, was thought to be linked to the disappearance of thousands of dissidents during his rule.

Garzon also led the investigation into crimes committed by Adolfo Scilingo, the former Argentine naval officer accused of killing political prisoners in the 1970s and 80s when, as in Chile, tens of thousands of left-wing dissidents and others were killed or went missing.

Scilingo was convicted by a Spanish court in 2005 to 640 years in prison.

In 2003, Garzon issued an international arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden. A few years later, he triggered a row between the US and Spain after he criticised Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of inmates at the US detention centre.

In a 2006 interview, Garzon told the New York Times” “A model like Guantanamo is an insult to countries that respect laws. It delegitimizes us. It is a place that needs to disappear immediately.”

In the following years, Garzon filed criminal charges against six members of the Bush administration in a Spanish court, accusing them of violating international law and justifying torture during interrogation of suspected “terrorists.”

The case failed to gain traction and was later dropped by the Spanish court.

‘Blow to human rights’

It was in 2008 that Garzon stirred the biggest controversy of his career.

More than three decades after the death of Franco, he launched the first ever investigation into crimes committed during the dictatorship, a dark era in Spain’s modern history.

Soon after the investigation began it was halted for violating the 1977 amnesty law, passed as Spain made the transition to democracy.

In 2010, he was indicted by Spain’s Supreme Court on charges brought forward by right-wing groups, not the state’s public prosecutor. He currently faces three trials.

If found guilty, Garzon will be barred from practicing law for up to 20 years, and his career, in effect, will be over.

Hugo Relva, a legal adviser at Amnesty International, recently said in a statement” “The charges against [Garzon] must be dropped, as they represent a blow to human rights and efforts to obtain justice.”

Source: Al Jazeera