Saturday, 14 March 2009

Baltasar Garzon, Spain’s most famous judge, is again at the centre of the country’s political life, this time over a corruption probe


Baltasar Garzon, Spain’s most famous judge, is again at the centre of the country’s political life, this time over a corruption probe that is becoming increasingly embarrassing for the conservative opposition. Conservative spokeswoman Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has indirectly accused Garzon of acting in complicity with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s socialists in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of her People’s Party (PP). Half a year earlier, the internationally prestigious magistrate at Madrid’s powerful National Court was forced to drop an unprecedented inquiry into human rights abuses under Spain’s 1939-75 dictator Francisco Franco Garzon, however, knows that he is admired as fervently as he is hated, and that apparent defeats often turn into partial victories, as investigations which are shelved later break new ground. Some see the controversial judge as an incorruptible fighter for universal justice, while others claim that his vanity and hunger for fame know no limits. Few, however, would dispute that the notoriety of judges like Garzon reflects a certain politicisation of Spanish courts, which handle politically sensitive matters such as corruption or terrorism.
Elegant in his sharp suits, glasses and gray hair combed backwards, Garzon, 53, hardly ever talks to the press, but seems to be always making headlines.
A list of people Garzon has investigated reads like a “Who’s Who” of the criminal world: drug lords, arms traffickers, Basque and Islamist terrorists, corrupt politicians and foreign dictators. Garzon helped to corner the militant Basque separatist group ETA by cracking down not only on the group itself, but also on related organisations, leaving the radicals increasingly isolated.
By attempting to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, Garzon helped to launch a judicial human rights crusade in which Spanish judges have played a prominent role. Garzon has investigated alleged human rights abuses ranging from Argentina to Western Sahara, and even ordered the arrest of Osama bin Laden.
With a new probe by Garzon’s colleague Fernando Andreu into a 2002 Gaza bombing now creating tension with Israel, the government sees the judges’ human rights campaign as going too far, and plans to limit their jurisdiction mainly to cases involving Spanish citizens. While investigating human rights violations abroad, however, Spanish courts had not tackled the ones at home, and Garzon broke a taboo when launching a probe in 2008 into the alleged killings of more than 100,000 leftists during and after the 1936-39 civil war that brought Franco to power.
Prosecutors close to the conservative opposition used judicial arguments to pressure Garzon to abandon the inquiry, which could now be taken over by regional courts.
The row over Francoism paved the way for an open showdown between Garzon and the PP, after the judge named about 40 people suspects in an investigation into an alleged corruption network involving PP- governed regions and municipalities.
The party made the most of a revelation by the press that Garzon had gone on a hunting expedition with justice minister Mariano Fernandez Bermejo, accusing the two of plotting against the PP and forcing Bermejo to resign. The PP also lodged a judicial complaint against Garzon, who finally transferred part of the PP probe to other courts on Thursday, but simultaneously presented new charges against senior PP representatives including Valencian regional prime minister Francisco Camps.
Those accusing Garzon of acting out of political motives point to his brief stint with socialist politics in the early 1990s.
Garzon did, however, also pursue prime minister Felipe Gonzalez’ socialist government over the semi-official GAL death squads that killed ETA suspects in the 1980s, contributing to the end of the 14- year Gonzalez era in 2006.
Garzon’s critics slam him as a would-be politician who does a sloppy job dealing with lower-level cases, but such accusations are also tinged with envy.
Admirers point to the courage and hard work of the judge, son of a modest family from the southern region of Andalusia, who is accustomed to receiving threats and has to live surrounded by bodyguards.
“There are cases in which a judge’s life is not worth more than how much you are prepared to pay the hired assassin at hand,” Garzon wrote in his book Un Mundo Sin Miedo (A World Without Fear). Some human rights groups have proposed Garzon for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the personal cost of the judge’s brilliant career was also revealed recently, when he was hospitalised for an anxiety attack

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