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The Rise and Fall of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón

9:15 AM, Feb 17, 2012 • By SOEREN KERN
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Varela charged that Garzón, in order to get around these restrictions, tried to create law rather than administer it. “Aware of his lack of jurisdiction and that the crimes reported lacked penal relevance when the proceedings began, [Garzón] built a contrived argument to justify his control of the proceedings he initiated,” Varela wrote in his ruling.

Garzón denied any wrongdoing and defended his probe as legitimate. Many observers believe that Garzón viewed himself as an “exceptional” judge, not bound by the laws and constitution of Spain. His arrogance, they say, made him become increasingly prone to overreaching his authority.

In a case that is still pending, for example, Garzón is accused of asking Emilio Botín, the chairman of Santander, Spain’s largest bank, for a $300,000 grant to pay for a course the judge was organizing at New York University. At the time, Botín was due to stand trial in Garzón’s own court on charges of financial misappropriation. After receiving the grant money, the charges against Botín were dropped. If convicted, Garzón faces the possibility of time in prison.

In another case that pointed to the politicization of the Spanish justice system, Garzón went on a hunting trip with the former Spanish justice minister at a time when the former was investigating corruption in the conservative Popular Party, which was in the opposition at the time. PP leader Mariano Rajoy accused the two men of leaking information to the press in a bid to influence regional elections, and called on the then Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to explain the relations between his Socialist government and the judicial authorities. The justice minister was forced to resign in wake of the scandal.

Garzón jumped to international fame as a leading proponent of Spain’s doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which holds that crimes like torture or terrorism can be tried in Spain even if they are alleged to have been committed elsewhere and have no link to Spain.

In 1998, Garzón had former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested during a visit to London, although Britain ultimately refused to extradite him to Madrid for trial. In the years that followed, Garzón used the principle of universal jurisdiction to go after current or former government officials, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and around 100 leaders of the 1976-1983 military junta in Argentina.

At one point, Garzón and his colleagues were pursuing more than a dozen international investigations into alleged cases of torture, genocide, and crimes against humanity in places like Colombia, Tibet, and Rwanda. Most of these cases had had little or no connection to Spain and critics accused Garzón of interpreting the concept of universal jurisdiction too loosely.

Calls to rein in the judges increased when Spanish magistrates announced probes involving Israel and the United States. In January 2009, Spanish national court judge Fernando Andreu said he would investigate seven current or former Israeli officials over a 2002 air attack in Gaza. In March of that year, Garzón said he would investigate six Bush administration officials for giving legal cover to torture at the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. That May, another Spanish high court judge, Santiago Pedraz, said he would charge three U.S. soldiers with crimes against humanity for the April 2003 deaths of a Spanish television cameraman and a Ukrainian journalist. The men were killed when a U.S. tank crew shelled their Baghdad hotel.

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