Historic trial against Garzón begins

Gürtel lawyers played "key role" in money laundering, says judge as he defends his decision to order jailhouse surveillance recordings

High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón testified Tuesday that lawyers for the Gürtel defendants were actively taking part in money-laundering operations on behalf of their clients while the suspects sat in jail following their arrests in the massive public corruption investigation.

Garzón took the stand in his own defense before the Supreme Court, where he went on trial on criminal charges that he illegally ordered surveillance recordings of jailhouse conversations between the jailed defendants - who allegedly were part of a kickbacks-for-government contracts scheme - and their defense team.

Garzón said he ordered the surveillance recordings because there were still money-laundering activities going on among members of the so-called Gürtel network. "[The recordings] were not made either to obtain information or to extend the investigation," the judge said. "The lawyers played a key role in planning the basics of money laundering."

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Included in those conversations were discussions on how to prevent money that had been hidden in secret accounts abroad from being repatriated, he added.

The charges against him were brought before the Supreme Court by the Gürtel defendants, who claim that the judge wanted to get information about their defense strategy.

If found guilty, he could be barred from the bench for a period of 10 to 17 years. It is the first time in modern Spanish history that a judge has been tried for ordering phone taps.

Garzón was handling the case in February 2009 when he ordered the arrest of alleged Gürtel ringleader Francisco Correa, his principal accomplice Pablo Crespo and around two dozen others on charges that they paid some seven million euros in bribes in exchange for juicy contracts with various PP governments in Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha and Valencia. Gürtel means "belt" in German, as does correa in Spanish, and was thus used as the secret code word for the investigation.

Upon questioning by prosecutors, Garzón said that he had no interest in learning the defense strategy. "Because of Correa and Crespo's influence it was impossible that [money laundering] could continue without their participation, unless they gave instructions to their lawyers. There was no other way."

The surveillance recordings continued after Garzón passed the case on March 31, 2009 to the Madrid High Court. "I don't know where the rest of the tapes are because I no longer had jurisdiction," he said during cross examination by the Gürtel defense team.

Garzón supporters come out in full force

Garzón, who became internationally famous in 1998 after issuing an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, said he had to order the arrests, which broke the case wide open, because there was a chance that Correa and others would flee Spain and apply for other nationalities. The alleged ringleader remains in jail in lieu of bail of 15 million euros.

Outside the courtroom, scores of Garzón supporters waved placards and kept vigil throughout the trial's opening session. Many of Garzón's backers believe that he is being persecuted by rightwing elements for the controversial cases he has investigated in the past.

"This is a world turned upside down. Fascists and corrupt justices putting an honest judge on trial," said one demonstrator.

Before testimony got underway, the Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition filed by Garzón's lawyer, Francisco Baena Bocanegra, to recuse two justices from the trial - Luciano Varela and Manuel Marchena - on the grounds of alleged impartiality throughout the top court's preliminary investigation.

Even though many of the jailhouse recordings were thrown out as evidence in the Gürtel inquiry by the Supreme Court, they were backed by the judge who took over the investigation from Garzón, Antonio Pedreira, and anti-corruption prosecutors. In one ruling handed down in January 2010, Pedreira said that there were clear indications that some of the Gürtel lawyers were participating in a cover-up to keep investigators from discovering "millions of euros" in overseas accounts.

Swiss investigators have uncovered some 24 million euros in bank accounts linked to Correa.

This is only the first of three cases that the High Court judge is facing. Later this month, he will go to trial on charges that he overstepped his judicial duty by trying to open an investigation into crimes committed during the Francisco Franco dictatorship. The charges were brought against him by an obscure rightwing union, Manos Limpias, and the Spanish Falange de los JONS party.

Garzón has also been named in another Supreme Court case for allegedly accepting money from Banco Santander for organizing a conference while he was on an official leave of absence from the High Court to study at New York University.

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