Spanish court convicts judge Baltasar Garzon

Judge found guilty of ordering illegal recordings in corruption case and suspended from bench for 11 years.

Garzon outside Spanish court
Garzon has been found guilty of abusing judicial powers and disbarred for 11 years on Thursday [Reuters]

Spain’s top court has convicted judge Baltasar Garzon in an illegal phone-tapping case and suspended him from the legal profession for 11 years, according to a court official.

Garzon, 56, who became internationally well known for his attempts to extradite Chile’s former ruler, Augusto Pinochet, was found guilty of ordering illegal recordings of conversations between suspects in a corruption case and their lawyers.

The supreme court said in a statement on Thursday that Garzon had been suspended from the bench for 11 years, which, given his age, could effectively end his career.

Garzon acted arbitrarily in ordering jailhouse phone tapping of conversations between detainees and their lawyers, the court said.

It said his actions “these days are only found in totalitarian regimes”.

The Switzerland-based International Commission of Jurists condemned the supreme court verdict as “deplorable”.

It said Garzon had been prosecuted simply for doing his job.

“The conviction of Judge Garzon in this case is the deplorable conclusion of a criminal proceeding that should have never been initiated in the first place,” Pedro Nikken, ICJ president, said.

“Garzon has been removed from the bench for interpreting the law and rendering a decision but whether or not one agrees with the interpretation and decision, this is precisely what being a judge is about.”

Second trial

Garzon is waiting judgment in a second trial for trying to investigate atrocities of the Franco era, in an alleged breach of an amnesty.

He ordering an investigation in 2008 into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936 to 1939 civil war and General Francisco Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

He has defiantly rejected the charges of abuse of power.

“The amnesty law refers to crimes of a political nature, in no way can it be said that crimes against humanity of the kind that were alleged could have any political nature,” Garzon told the court on the opening day of his testimony in Madrid.

“As such it was not even necessary to make a reference to the amnesty law.”

Victims’ families who filed the case in 2006 had described disappearances, illegal detentions and killings, which amounted “in some cases to crimes against humanity, genocide”, he said.

The case has opened heated debate in Spain over a dark period of its history, and invited criticism from rights groups.

Rights groups’ hero

Garzon has become a hero to many human-rights activists and victims of the Franco period.

He came to international prominence in 1998 when he ordered the extradition of Pinochet from Britain to face charges of human-rights abuses.

Garzon acted under the principle of universal jurisdiction – the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere.

He and colleagues at the National Court went on to champion this doctrine and try to apply it in places as far away as Rwanda and Tibet.

He has also pursued members of the former military rule in Argentina, indicted Osama bin Laden, investigated alleged abuses at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and investigated tax fraud accusations, later dropped, against Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister.

Garzon was suspended from his duties at the National Court, Spain’s top criminal court, in May 2010 and currently works as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Source: News Agencies