On February 9, the Spanish supreme court unanimously ruled to disbar Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who famously indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet using the legal doctrine of universal jurisdiction, for ordering illegal wiretaps. The court found that Garzón acted illegally when he authorized police to record jailhouse conversations between detainees and their defense lawyers in a political corruption investigation known in Spain as the Gürtel case.
In a 70-page ruling, the court said Garzón’s actions “caused a drastic and unjustified reduction of the right to a defense” and that his tactics “these days are only found in totalitarian regimes.” He is forbidden from practicing law for the next 11 years, effectively ending the judicial career of Garzón, who is 56.
Garzón’s conviction has implications that reach far beyond Spain. In addition to depriving the left of one of the most ambitious legal activists, it also marks the beginning of the end of Spain’s foray into cross border jurisprudence.
Additionally, Garzón now faces trial in two other cases: One for allegedly overstepping his authority by ordering an inquiry into political crimes committed during and after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, and another for dropping an investigation of the head of Spain’s biggest bank after receiving payments from him.
Garzón’s legal problems began in October 2008, when Garzón accused the late General Francisco Franco and 34 of his former generals and ministers of crimes against humanity in connection with mass executions and tens of thousands of disappearances of civilians between 1936 and 1952. Garzón also ordered the exhumation of 19 mass graves.
Considering that the Spanish Civil War ended more than 70 years ago, and that Franco died in 1975, few suspects, even if identified, would be alive today to stand trial. But the main objection to Garzón’s probe stemmed from the fact that he decided to limit his investigation only to crimes committed by the right wing Nationalists (i.e., the Francoists). Garzón’s inquiry did not extend to political crimes committed by the left wing Republicans (anti-Francoists), which included Marxists, liberals, and anarchists. Republican death squads murdered up to 70,000 clergy, nuns, and ordinary middle class Spaniards in a reign of terror that largely contributed to the rise of Franco.
Garzón’s supporters say Spain needs an honest accounting of its troubled past, and they view his probe as a long-overdue indictment, even if only a symbolic one, of the Franco regime. But the one-sided nature of Garzón’s probe sparked outrage among Spanish conservatives. They accused the judge (who in 1993 took a leave of absence to run for a seat in Spanish parliament as a member of the Socialist party, but returned to the bench in anger only a year later after he was passed over for justice minister) of political grandstanding and pursuing a personal vendetta against them.
After several conservative groups filed complaints against Garzón for not applying the law equally, the supreme court appointed Judge Luciano Varela to examine the case. In a 14-page ruling, Varela concluded that Garzón manipulated the course of justice by knowingly violating a 1977 amnesty law that shields all sides, including members of the Franco dictatorship, from legal persecution. Moreover, a 2007 law of historical memory, explicitly gave the lower courts (and not Garzón’s high court) jurisdiction over locating and digging up the mass graves that still dot the Spanish countryside.