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Cards of privilege

The Gürtel case is the archetype of a process conditioned by parliamentary privilege

Until three years ago Luis Bárcenas was a senator with the privilege of parliamentary immunity, which explains some of the complications making current proceedings move so slowly. Many elected representatives fall into that class of Spanish people who have a right to trial before a concrete court. Those who possess this privilege are well aware of it. So (need we add?) are their lawyers. This enables them to play with certain cards.

The Gürtel case is the archetype of a process conditioned by parliamentary privilege. The merry-go-round began in the National High Court in 2008 and expanded in 2009 in the hands of Baltasar Garzón. It jumped to the Madrid regional High Court, when three regional parliamentarians appeared among the 40 initial suspects. Though Esperanza Aguirre expelled them from the PP, they remained parliamentarians with privilege. One chunk of the proceedings was shunted off to Valencia. Others mentioned in the indictment had a right to appear before the Supreme Court, Bárcenas being one of them. The proceedings were thus divided between several courts.

As they gathered speed again, Bárcenas resigned his senatorial seat in 2010, and lost his right to the Supreme Court. Another holdup. Who was to be his judge? At last the case came back to the Madrid regional High Court, where circumstances had dumped a huge corruption case in the lap of Judge Antonio Pedreira. Early in 2011, two years after the case began, a journalist saw the 40 square meters of office space the judge shared with two other judges, working on other matters. "It is impressive to see the mountains of papers and folders on the Gürtel case around the judge's desk, piled on the floor because there is nowhere else to put the flood of paper the case has been generating for many months now..." In the Madrid case alone there were then 60 persons under indictment, and the judge had imposed a total of 200 million euros in bail, but he had no other judge to assist him.

The first certain proof began to arrive of the millions that Bárcenas had squirreled away

While the monster grew, election time rolled around. The three regional deputies of Madrid suddenly gave up their seats, shortly before Esperanza Aguirre's campaign for re-election. There went the main reason for Pedreira still having the case in his overcrowded office. But there it lingered throughout almost all of 2011, amid discussions over whether it should go back to the National High Court or be sent to an ordinary court of first instance. So long did the formalities last that the industrious Pedreira had time to remove Bárcenas's name from the indictment list, a few weeks before the general elections that gave a parliamentary majority to the PP.

By 2012, the case was back in the National High Court. Garzón was no longer there, booted off the bench by his peers for, among other things, having authorized phone taps on conversations between jailed Gürtel figures and their lawyers. Bárcenas might have remained at large, to enjoy the fortune he had hidden from the Spanish taxman and his "deferred salary" from the PP, had the anti-corruption prosecutor not appealed against his removal from the indictment list. His case then came before Pablo Ruz, who found the Gürtel case on his desk (a manner of speaking, since the documentation now amounted to 50,000 pages in 671 volumes). As if in a comedy, he had other ongoing work as well.

Many months later, the first certain proof began to arrive from Switzerland concerning the millions that Bárcenas had squirreled away there. The notebooks containing the PP's alleged under-the-counter accounts began to be published. And after so many years of steps forward, backward and this way and that, the Bárcenas case blows up just when it can do the most political damage to the prime minister. The risk of sweeping problems under the rug and letting them rot there is that the stink begins to fill the whole room.

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