SPAIN’S crusading judge is silenced with 11-ban over illegal wiretaps.
THE independence of Spanish justice has been dealt a serious blow following the high profile trial of Spain’s leading anti-corruption prosecuting magistrate, Baltasar Garzon.
The 56-year-old Garzon, whose controversial investigations have made many enemies in Spain’s right wing establishment, has been found guilty of using illegal phone tapping and barred from office for 11 years.
After 30 years of loyal service of which 22 were spent in the Audiencia Nacional (National Court) it means the end of his career; a long and distinguished public service which included dismantling ETA terrorist groups, drug busting and money laundering, the detention of Pinochet, crimes against humanity in Latin America, all of which made him a household name and popular with the people.
The trial was one of three implicating Garzon; one to prevent him bringing a case of crimes against humanity for atrocities committed during the Civil War and the other a seemingly nebulous accusation that he received illicit funds from an American university during a lecture tour.
The fact that all seven judges voted unanimously against him suggests that this was not just a trial but a conspiracy to rid Spain of the one investigating magistrate who had opened the Pandora’s Box of corruption implicating powerful political and business figures.
In normal circumstances a judge could simply order that evidence is not admissible if it is considered illegal.
Now, in an extraordinary reversal of justice, while those accused of corruption and transferring illicit funds to tax havens may well avoid trial, Garzon was ordered to give up the income and the pension rights he has earned since he was suspended in 2010 as well as pay his opponents legal costs.
Garzon said: “I totally reject the verdict which has no basis in law, which unjustly condemns me and was predetermined.”
His only recourse is the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
It is feared that the verdict will bring an end to future investigations into the endemic corruption that has contaminated Spanish regional politics for decades.
Garzon can count on public opinion since he has the support of the immense majority of the Spanish people. More than 60 per cent back him and only 36 per cent believe there was any justification for the trials, a recent poll shows.
Another 70 per cent support his investigation into the atrocities committed during the Spanish civil war. The corruption investigations came to a head in 2009 when Garzon uncovered a vast network of corruption in the Valencia region.
Known as ‘Gurtel’ it linked corporations and the conservative Popular Party (PP) with large contracts being awarded in exchange for cash payments.
Garzon succeeded in having the principle middleman in the deals sent to prison and it was at this time that the telephone tapping took place during conversations between the accused and his lawyers. They brought the case on the grounds that it breached the law and confidentiality.
Garzon claimed that he had sought prior approval from his superiors arguing that it concerned money laundering and it would be the only means to prevent it. Spanish law only permits phone tapping when it concerns terrorism.
Yet in the lower courts his actions were considered appropriate and in proportion and permission was actually granted by a superior judge.
There have been two other recent cases which had nothing to do with state security when phone tapping was allowed.
One was the case of a murdered girl whose body was never found and the judge gave permission in the hope of obtaining information as to the whereabouts of the body.
The other concerned an attempt on the life of a judge and it was deemed necessary to tap the principle suspect’s phone in prison to find out if a professional hit man had been involved.
Neither judge was troubled, which makes the reasons for bringing the case against Garzon even more suspicious. During the trial lawyers called the phone tapping ‘monstrous’, ‘infamous’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘unconstitutional’.
Handing down sentence the Judge said. “Phone tapping is a practice which today only exists in those totalitarian regimes where the end justifies the means.”
Reactions have been quick. The right wing President of the Madrid Region, Esperanza Aguirre, said. “The judgement is a triumph for the rule of law,” while her socialist opponents lambasted the verdict.
“This is a vendetta and a lynching of a man who was becoming a menace to important people.” “Justice has been turned upside down when the first person to be convicted in this major corruption case is the investigating judge.”
Mercedes Gallizo Llamas was on the socialist party’s committee for Penal Institutions. “The judges kneel before corruption,” she said. “These crimes cannot go unpunished without the collaboration and connivance in political, business and legal circles, the people who hide behind a veil of respectability.”
Unlike other meddling magistrates Garzon may live to fight another day. It was not the same for Judge Pierre Michel, gunned down in 1981 in Marseille or Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, assassinated in 1992 in Sicily, high profile figures whose dedication to end political corruption and organised crime cost them their lives.
With so many corruption scandals still before the courts it remains to be seen whether confidence in the Spanish justice system will return.
Photo credit: Fernando Gómez Aguilera