The head of an obscure far-right organization involved in several high-profile court cases in Spain over recent years has been arrested in Madrid on extortion charges.
Miguel Bernad, head of Manos Limpias (Clean Hands) was detained on Friday morning along with Luis Pineda, the president of Ausbanc, a financial consumer association.
Both men have been involved with shadowy neo-fascist groups dating back to the 1980s.
Both men are thought to have been lodging complaints against a number of individuals, institutions and businesses and then demanding money in return for withdrawing legal action, say judicial sources.
The suspects are being investigated for extortion, subsidy fraud, tax crimes, money laundering and criminal association.
Police expected to make around 14 arrests in connection with the case; the offices of Ausbanc and Manos Limpias were also searched on Friday morning.
In 2009, Manos Limpias sued High Court judge Baltasar Garzón over his inquiry into Franco-era crimes. In May of that year, the Supreme Court accepted Manos Limpias' lawsuit against Garzón for his "blatant, deliberate, conscious and arrogant role" in "trespassing against the dead." Garzón was eventually cleared of this charge but barred from the bench as a result of a separate case.
In 2015, Manos Limpias brought a private prosecution as part of an investigation into the former president of Caja Madrid, Miguel Blesa. More recently, Manos Limpias filed a claim against VW over its emissions claims.
Both Bernad and Pineda have been involved in the past with shadowy neo-fascist groups. Bernad set up Manos Limpias in the mid-1980s, ostensibly as a labor union for Spanish public service employees with a mission to root out corruption in the country.
Ausbanc was set up as a consumer rights organization focusing on the finance and banking sector. In 2000, it won a case brought against banks for "rounding up" interest rates.
Manos Limpias has brought several private prosecutions over the last decade, the most recent against Princess Cristina, who was charged with tax fraud in the Noos case and became the first Spanish royal to take the stand in a criminal trial.
High Court sources said Manos Limpias allegedly asked Banco Sabadell and La Caixa for three million euros in exchange for dropping the charges against Cristina de Borbón.
Friday’s arrests follow a number of leaks to the media about the judicial investigation into Ausbanc and Manos Limpias, which has been ongoing for several months.
Several Spanish banks had complained that they have been “obliged” over the last two decades to place advertisements in Ausbanc’s magazines to avoid the publication of articles criticizing them. Caja Madrid and BBVA finally spoke out about the alleged blackmail, prompting a number of abusive articles in Ausbanc publications. In 2007, Crédit Services reported Ausbanc’s chairman, Pineda, to the authorities, accusing him of extortion.
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English version by Nick Lyne.