interview

“Judges should have an ideology”

Baltasar Garzón reflects on his career, his supporters and enemies, his political aspirations and a possible return to the judiciary

The human rights lawyer and former judge, Baltasar Garzón.
The human rights lawyer and former judge, Baltasar Garzón.JAMES RAJOTTE

T hree hours of sleep give one plenty of time to do things during the rest of the day. And three hours of rest is all that Baltasar Garzón needs to recharge his batteries and deal with all his national and international commitments. In his new life, the former High Court judge chairs a foundation with programs in nine countries, heads the legal team defending WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange, presides the International Center for the Promotion of Human Rights in Argentina, has worked on several projects in Colombia and Ecuador, and is doing research on El Salvador at a university in Seattle.

What these and other projects have in common is their defense of fundamental rights and, in some cases, the creation of truth commissions. In a way, it is but an extension of what Garzón, now 58, did for years from his position at Spain's central criminal court, where he pursued ETA terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt politicians with such zeal that he soon became a household name. His international fame began to build in October 1998 when he issued an unprecedented international arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against Spanish nationals.

Garzón would go on to use the concept of universal jurisdiction again in cases against members of Argentina's military junta, earning him the "crusading judge" label. But if Garzón became world famous then, he has turned into nothing short of a star since he was unceremoniously kicked out of the High Court in 2012 for ordering wiretaps of prisoner-lawyer conversations in connection with Gürtel, a widespread corruption scandal affecting Spain's ruling Popular Party (PP). The Supreme Court barred him from his work for 11 years in a move that has been widely criticized in Spain and abroad as politically motivated. By then though, he had already been suspended for allegedly overstepping his bounds when he tried to investigate human rights crimes under the Franco regime. That decision, too, is widely viewed as punishment for attempting to make a foray into territory that nobody has dared to touch yet.

That was when Garzón, who had battled all kinds of crimes and criminals, realized that there is a line in his own country that cannot be crossed. Right after the Supreme Court ruling against him became public, Garzón announced that he would return to his post after the 11 years were over. But now he does not sound so sure anymore. Nor does he rule out a return to politics in some capacity, following his short-lived experience in the early 1990s, when he ran with the Socialist Party and was appointed head of the National Anti-Drug Plan, which he soon quit alleging lack of government support.

They came up with a crime for me; it is clear from the sequence of events"

Question. With all the work you're now doing across the globe, why doesn't the government of Mariano Rajoy figure out that you would make a good ambassador for the Spain brand?

Answer. Deep down it all worked out well for me; it helped my mental balance to deal with that unconscionable thing that had happened to me [being barred]. It was obvious that it was going to happen. What saved me was going to the International Criminal Court [as a consultant for six months]. They asked me to come even before the ruling came out.

Q. And how is the Julian Assange case going these days?

A. I am concerned about his situation, though he has incredible fortitude. Asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London is working well, but the situation is stretching out and his conditions are worse than prison. He gets no sunlight, and cannot go out on the terrace or he'd get arrested. It's inconceivable that Sweden should have adopted such a hostile attitude towards him. We have no problem dealing with the Swedish trial over the rape charges, but we need clear and final guarantees that he will get asylum if he stands trial and gets convicted, if that were the case. He is still alright, but I am very concerned about his condition.

I went to Colombia. There I was part of the support mission to the peace process"

Q. Will you finally also be defending Edward Snowden?

A. I was asked, and I considered it. But I didn't think it appropriate to defend both. The facts are different. I also think it's terrible what is happening to him. What he has revealed is of extreme gravity. But defending both would be convenient for neither of them.

Q. Being suspended and barred has become a springboard for a new life, though.

A. What I can definitely say is that there is not one single place in the world I have visited since 2010 where I have not received support from supreme courts and international organizations. There is no place where I did not feel that warmth and where I was not told that they don't understand what happened to me.

Julian Assange with Garzón.
Julian Assange with Garzón.CORDON PRESS

Q. Let's be positive then. When did this new life begin?

A. I immediately went to Colombia. There I was part of the support mission to the peace process, also working with the government in the areas of demobilization, transitional justice, and with the paramilitaries. It was an incredible experience. I visited prisons, I was with the victims, I drew up a report about the Peace and Justice Commission, and when I left the Organization of American States (OAS) in August 2012, it was because the United States imposed it on them.

Q. Why is that?

A. Because I was defending Julian Assange. They made that demand. The president of the organization told me: there is nothing else I can do. And I said, yes there is. You could say no to them, but I understand... In any case, I was already planning to leave. What I didn't like is the fact that my departure was an imposition because I was defending a particular client. Therein lies the paradox: I get condemned for not respecting the principle of defense and then kicked out of a job because as a lawyer I am defending someone who exercises his freedom of expression. President Santos of Colombia always treated me in an excellent manner, I have to say. To us you are still Judge Garzón, he told me.

I am concerned about Assange, though he has incredible fortitude"

Q. Don't you have any qualms about cooperating so actively with Latin American governments that practice left-wing populism, such as Argentina or Ecuador?

A. Each country has to be judged according to its own idiosyncrasies. In Ecuador, Correa is said to be eliminating freedom of expression, yet I keep reading furious attacks against him. In Argentina there is tension between the government and the Clarín media group, which is evident in the media law - on which the justice system ruled in favor of the executive - and the level of mutual denigration is incredible. Yes, things can be improved; yes, there is sometimes the risk that excessive power conferred by votes can become something negative. But we see the same thing [in Spain], with the citizens security law, abortion reform and an education reform that puts us at the bottom of the world ranking.

Q. On the subject of the fine line between politics and the judiciary, how do you think the other side would feel if you decide to step into their playing field? I am talking about running for elections. You have not denied a willingness to do so.

A. My concept of the state is very clear. All three powers have their space. But they must not move in divergent directions. Participating in politics is every citizen's obligation. I am not one of those who say that they do not participate in politics, because that very statement entails a judgment, generally a right-wing one at that. Nor do I believe those who say that judges have to put their ideology to one side. No. They must have one; they must take society on board; they must know what they are doing. The opposite is irresponsible.

I left the OAS in 2012 because the United States imposed it on them"

Q. Are you talking about ivory towers?

A. Yes, those which always happen to lean to the same side, what a coincidence... We judges need to be involved. Now that I am free, I have said that I want to get involved, and I am doing so, but I don't want to be linked to anyone specific, because I do not yearn for any elected position or for a run for office. At this moment that is not a priority.

Q. Would you run in elections in the future then?

A. If what we mean by going into politics is to adopt a position of leadership that takes you to an elected position, that is not my priority. But I do prioritize a dynamic exchange of ideas and options that defend things that I identify with.

A photo of Garzón from 1987.
A photo of Garzón from 1987.CRISTÓBAL MANUEL

Q. Are we seeing the collapse of a system that has ruled us for over 30 years?

A. Yes, and they [judges] don't realize it. They remain in their castle, holding on to their positions for dear life, and kicking people down along the way.

Q. People like yourself?

A. That model is no longer credible. It is anti-democratic; we have shifted from a participatory model to a corporate model of distribution. Citizens need an alternative. It's like this thing you hear that the Constitution cannot be touched. Why not? Everything is altered around here: abortion laws, education laws, security laws. So why not the Constitution? Maybe we should actually start with that.

Spain needs neither saviors nor magicians. We need commitment"

Q. Are you the type who thinks that your country needs you right now?

A. No. Spain needs neither saviors nor magicians. What this country needs is commitment. An ethic of political responsibility requires people to be alert to what we do, and when we start doing something, people should not have to wonder about our ulterior motives. I have always defended the public sphere. When people asked me why I got involved in certain matters as a judge, I replied that this is what I was getting paid for. Did the system cut me down? I don't know. I think it was specific individuals.

Q. Are there dark forces at play here? Is there a line that cannot be crossed in Spain?

A. I don't know whether it is one or several forces, or rather specific people who are part of that system. What I'm worried about is the meddling by certain politicians or members of the PP at a specific point in time; people who actually boasted that they were talking to judges and magistrates, who were holding meetings, who were coming and going. To me that is a scandal. Later you look at the sequence of events and it all makes sense. They came up with a crime for me. The judges involved in the Gürtel case later ratified my measure [ordering wiretaps] and even used it themselves. Five attorneys agreed that my actions had been correct. So why me? We could look for explanations that escape me. But I have given up on looking for reasons and arguments. I respect the judicial system, but they destroyed my right to a defense; they prevented me from using a lot of evidence, and the ruling was already pre-established. How can we talk about impartiality?

My uncle fought for the Republic even though he was a right-winger"

Q. There are two types of judges, you say. There are those who are content with any reply, and those who always ask the next question.

A. The passive one and the productive one. I absolutely reject the first kind.

Q. Which ones are in the majority?

A. It used to be the first group, but not anymore. They still exist, but there are fewer of them. I hope I have played a role in changing that.

I wanted to be a missionary but they gave up on me when I got a girlfriend"

Q. I often wonder about that child growing up in Andalusia who began building a concept of justice inside himself.

A. I was a combination of circumstances. But without a doubt, the main ingredient was the upbringing my parents, who were both quite liberal, gave me. My mother is an exceptional woman with a very open mind. My father was a farmer who later worked at a gas station where I also worked for several years. He died very young, 25 years ago now. My father's family was left-wing, my mother's was right-wing, but there was one other important person: my uncle Gabriel, who fought for the Republic even though he was a right-winger. He remained loyal to the legally elected government. He could have switched sides, but he didn't want to. I was also influenced by the seminary.

Q. You were going to be a priest?

A. At age 11 you don't really think about those things. I never rejected what I experienced there. I wanted to do something to express my solidarity, I even wanted to be a missionary. They taught me to love my work and they taught me responsibility. But they gave up on me when they found me with a girl I was sort of going out with. But there was more. When I asked a friend of mine why he was not talking to me anymore, he said he'd heard I was a communist and could corrupt him. "But why?" He said it was because I didn't go to mass, and because nobody saw me praying. I questioned things. So they gave up on me. But that is where I got my commitment to society. One day I heard a lecture by a judge, who was the father of a friend of mine, Lorenzo del Río, now president of the Andalusian High Court, and I decided I wanted to be a judge, too. When I told my mother, she nearly had a heart attack. "That sort of thing is not for us," she said.

I could have said no to the investigation into Franco's crimes, but it was my duty"

Q. Why not?

A. We were a middle-class farming family with five siblings, a salary of 70,000 pesetas, and all the kids in school. But that kind of a career seemed outside of our possibilities. They tried to talk me out of it. They said that a moment would come when it would become impossible.

Q. In a way they were right.

A. Right. But I wouldn't give up on the satisfaction that my father and mother felt. When I passed the examinations, my father was the happiest man on earth.

Q. And the day you were kicked out, what did your mother say?

A. She gave me a kiss and a hug, and said the family is here for you and always will be. [...] All the bad things that have happened to my family have brought us closer thanks to her, but she's suffered a lot in her quiet way, and that is something I will never forgive.

Q. Resentment sounds like a bad thing, but does indignation work when it comes to seeking justice?

A. I don't know how to hate. I don't forget things, but hate? Never. Indignation? Of course. I have described myself in writing as an advocate of the principle of active indignation in the face of indifference, injustice and a lack of commitment.

Q. Your decisions in the field of criminal investigation have also stirred controversy.

A. Controversies that I am still suffering from, and not from democratic sectors of society, but from ETA's circle, which is now harassing me in Argentina, for example. [...] In the early 1980s we began investigating the whole ETA structure; we wanted to prove that the criminal organization was nothing without the whole social, political and economic structure behind it. The pieces fit like a puzzle, and they moved them around at their convenience. It was necessary to make this visible, to disclose it, and to act on it. A lawyer associated with that world told me that everything had been planned since 1992.

Q. Giovanni Falcone, the Italian judge who was assassinated by the Mafia, used to say something that made a deep impression on you: "First they criticize your work, then they undermine your credibility, then they move on to threats, and finally they eliminate you." Which of these horrible phases are you at?

A. At times I feel caught up in that sequence. Now, in Argentina, there's that group of defenders of the Basque people, or whatever, who are inclined to violence and admit that their goal is to take away my prestige and my fame. That is how they brand people. I don't believe that ETA will return to its terrorist actions, but if it did, I am aware that I would be on the hit list.

Q. Is fear a word that means something to you?

A. Whoever says they never feel it is lying. How could I not be afraid? But fear makes you reflect, and either it holds you back or it makes you face up to your responsibilities. Every time I felt I was holding myself back, I took the drastic decision of forging ahead. How hard would it have been for me to say no to the investigation into Franco's crimes? What would the cost have been? One day of media headlines? Two? But it would have remained with me the rest of my life. Same with the Gürtel case. But the investigation demanded it. So there were consequences; so what can you do? I would have made the same decisions a hundred times more, because I believe that it was my duty.

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