Crusading Judge Garzón thrown off the court bench for 11 years

Supreme Court convicts magistrate in Gürtel phone-tap case

Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon arrives for his trial on February 8.
Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon arrives for his trial on February 8. DOMINIQUE FAGET (AFP)

Baltasar Garzón — the High Court judge who earned international fame in 1998 when he tried to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — was barred from serving on the bench for 11 years Thursday after the Supreme Court found him guilty on wiretap-related charges.

Specifically, the 56-year-old Garzón was convicted of breaching his duties and violating the constitutional rights of several public corruption defendants by ordering phone taps of their jailhouse conversations in 2009.

In a strongly worded 69-page ruling, the justices said that Garzón caused “a drastic and unjustified reduction in the defense’s strategy” and trampled on the constitutional rights of alleged Gürtel corruption network ringleaders Francisco Correa and Pablo Crespo, and other suspects in the conspiracy.

Using the same words as in a preliminary inquiry by investigating Justice Alberto Jorge Barreiro, the Supreme Court also accused Garzón of “practices typical of totalitarian regimes.”

The General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) is awaiting the top court’s official notification to formally remove Garzón from the High Court bench and open a candidacy process to select his replacement.

Meanwhile, thousands of people gathered at Puerta del Sol in Madrid for a rally in support of Garzón and to denounce the Supreme Court’s decision. Garzón’s lawyer, Francisco Baena, said that his client was “devastated” and was studying whether an appeal will be filed with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, or even Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Under the current law, Garzón cannot legally appeal the Supreme Court ruling, but Spain, which is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has been condemned in various global forums for not allowing the top court convictions of politicians and judges to be appealed.

At the beginning of his two-day trial on January 17, the Supreme Court told the judge that he cannot appeal the case because there are no such provisions under current Spanish law.

The judge did not immediately react to the ruling but his daughter, María Garzón Molina, sent a statement to news outlets directed at “all those who are toasting with champagne” the court’s ruling.

“To each and every one, I can tell you that you will never see us with our heads bowed down, nor with any tears in our eyes — we will never give you that pleasure,” she wrote. “You have dealt us a blow, but we will never cease.”

This was one of three cases Garzón faces at the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, a trial on similar breach-of-duty charges related to his attempt to open an inquiry into crimes committed during the civil war and the subsequent Francisco Franco regime was concluded.

The judge could face jail in another case in which he was indicted for bribery for allegedly accepting money from Banco Santander chairman Emilio Botín to organize a series of lectures at New York University. Garzón had earlier dismissed a tax fraud case against Botín.

Garzón’s suspension was met with muted response by politicians. The Socialist spokesman for judicial affairs in Congress, Julio Villarrubia, said that his party “was very concerned” about the conviction and sentence handed down to a judge with a long, distinguished career, while Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, of the Popular Party (PP) administration, said that the government “respected” the court’s ruling.

“In this decision, as in other rulings handed down by the courts, the government won’t try to make any type of political evaluation,” he said.

Correa’s lawyer José Antonio Choclán said that he felt “professionally, but not personally, satisfied” by the decision.

In 2009, following the arrests of Correa, Crespo and other Gürtel defendants, Garzón ordered their conversations with their lawyers recorded because, he says, the attorneys were helping the clients conceal and launder money. Investigators eventually discovered some 24 million euros Correa has stashed away in Swiss accounts.

The lawyers filed a complaint against the High Court judge, charging Garzón with violating attorney-client privileges and trying to learn their defense strategies. The original charge was filed by Ignacio Peláez, who was representing indicted businessman José Luis Uribarri. The lawyers asked that he be suspended for a period from 10 to 17 years.

The chief prosecutor for the Supreme Court sided with Garzón and asked that he be acquitted because he did not break any laws. But court justices said that Garzón “could not record the conversations without having a minimal indication — beyond a reasonable doubt — that the attorneys’ condition and the right to a fair defense were being used as an alibi for the commission of new crimes.”

“This is not a misapplication of the law, but instead an arbitrary act, without any rash reasoning, that disassembled the constitutional configuration of fair and just judicial process,” reads the ruling, signed by Justice Miguel Colmenero.

Correa and Crespo are awaiting trial on a host of charges that they ran a conspiracy made up of businessmen who paid bribes and performed political favors in exchange for fat public contracts in regional and local governments run by the Popular Party (PP) in Valencia, Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha.

Effectively, Garzón can ask the CGPJ to return to the High Court bench when his 11-year suspension is up, but he will be 67.

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