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As Spain’s most famous judge winds his way through the narrow streets of Madrid’s Austrias district, people stop to whisper and point. Many smile and wave, offering a few sweet words of encouragement. “Muy bien,” exclaims one woman, “you’re one of the best!”

This is nothing new for Garzón, the fearless judge who is a household name in Spain. A decades-long career saw him go after the financing structure of the Eta terrorist network in the 1990s, controversially issue an international arrest warrant for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, launch an unprecedented investigation that stirred the ghosts of Spain’s civil war past and turn his sights on domestic political corruption. The latter would ultimately send him tumbling from his high-court post; a prestigious legacy brought abruptly to an end, his status shattered.

As always in Spain, ideological fault lines dictate perception but everyone has an opinion about the former judge. To the left he’s a hero, standing up to the nefarious scourge of political corruption and the one person bold enough to address Franco-era injustices that few in Spain dare to even mention. To the right he’s an incendiary, El Juez Rojo (The Red Judge); the grand antagoniser, interested only in making a name for himself. A celebrity judge without a cause.

But to Garzón, the cause was always clear. Motivated by a duty to public service he has not only strived to dish out justice to high-profile culprits but also deliver it to victims. Unsurprisingly, he has made many enemies along the way. In 2009, Garzón spearheaded a vast investigation into what became the biggest political-corruption inquiry in modern Spanish history. Beginning as a simple probe into shady lobbyists connected to Spain’s conservative party, the Gürtel case snowballed into a scandal so epic that it almost defies comprehension. In short, it unveiled a systemic cash-for-contracts network stretching across the country, from village mayors all the way to the Popular party headquarters in Madrid.

It has been five years since Garzón issued the first arrest warrant and there are now over 200 suspects awaiting trial. The only person to be convicted thus far, however, is Garzón himself. In late 2012, he was hauled before his peers in the high court for ordering illegal wiretaps on Gürtel suspects and their lawyers in an effort to trace offshore accounts. Garzón and his supporters say it was an orchestrated campaign to remove him, headed by former defence minister Federico Trillo. Garzón was found guilty and barred from serving as a judge for 11 years, a sentence he decries as “political”.

“It’s no coincidence that, of the thousands of cases I handled over 32 years as a judge, these charges were brought against me for investigating both Francoist crimes and large-scale corruption affecting the major political party that currently governs the country,” Garzón says. “It served as a warning to other judges: upsetting political sensibilities can have consequences.”

It is something that Garzón still struggles to explain to confused outsiders as he jets from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, advising on the Farc peace talks one day, investigating crimes during the Argentinian dictatorship the next. Spending more time in Latin America than on home soil feeds a perception of exile but he seems determined to prove that one misstep cannot override a lifetime’s work.

“Being prevented from serving as a judge was like being cut in half but you have to go on,” he says. He hasn’t slowed down: a human-rights foundation has been established with four offices in Latin America and nine projects worldwide. He has been appointed counsellor of the human-rights commission in Argentina, provides legal counsel to Julian Assange and has collaborated with Unesco and the icc. He is currently working on two documentaries and writing three books. In recent months, Garzón has turned up the volume on his criticism of the Spanish government, particularly since his request for an official pardon was very publicly rebuffed by the justice minister.

The Rajoy administration is currently preparing sweeping reforms to water down judges’ powers, after deploying its absolute majority to restrict Spain’s Universal Justice doctrine (which Garzón famously used against Pinochet). There is even talk of increasing the number of aforados: a judicial protection afforded to over 10,000 members of the ruling class, granting them special access to the supreme court. It’s a bizarre perk that has often seen politicians tried in the high court for drink-driving offences before the very judges they have appointed.

“When a government’s most pressing need is to shelter politicians by extending their legal protection, it is almost as if we are living in a war zone. But the only war here should be against corruption,” says Garzón, banging his fist on the table. A lack of confidence in Spanish public institutions is exacerbating an institutional crisis far graver than the credit crunch. It is clear that Garzón could cut a powerful figure at the ballot box but he is coy about his political ambitions. “There is the kind of politician who believes that politics is based on deception, manipulation and the crooked use of power but that’s not me,” he says. “I think politics, more than just the art of achieving the possible, is a service for citizens to secure a better situation in their country for their people.” Some would prefer that things stay as they are but Garzón refuses to be silent. “They tell us we’re attacking Spanish interests,” he says. “No. I’m not attacking the Spanish brand or Spanish interests. What I want to do is defend them.”

Court order

Baltasar Garzón, CV

1955 Born in Andalusia on 26 October
1988 Appointed to Spain’s special high court: the Audiencia Nacional
1993 Resigns briefly to enter parliament as a Socialist candidate. Returns to the judiciary after just one year
1994 His investigation into the Gal anti-terrorist death squads leads to the conviction of a former Socialist party interior minister
1998 Issues arrest warrant for Augosto Pinochet, marking the first occasion when the doctrine of Universal Justice has been used against a former head of state
2009 Orders the arrest of two Conservative party affiliates, heralding the biggest corruption inquiry in modern Spanish history
2012 Disqualified from judicial activity for 11 years for ordering wiretaps on suspects in the Gürtel case.Launches Fibgar, a foundation dedicated to human rights and universal justice

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