Tuesday 17 January 2012

Spain's most famous judge, the charismatic and controversial investigating magistrate Baltasar Garzón, sat in the dock at the country's supreme court


Spain's most famous judge, the charismatic and controversial investigating magistrate Baltasar Garzón, sat in the dock at the country's supreme court on Tuesday morning to face charges that may bring his career to an abrupt and dramatic end. Garzón, who ordered the arrest in London of Chile's General Pinochet, entered the court wearing his judge's gown for what may be one of the last times, as he faces being struck off as a magistrate for up to 17 years. He told the Guardian he was in good spirits, though he has privately said he believes his fellow judges are determined to find him guilty in this case or one of the two others he must face in the coming weeks and months. "I'm fine," he said before entering a courtroom decorated with a massive glass chandelier and large crucifix. A panel of seven judges was set to hear evidence over two or three days. In the first of three separate cases against him at Madrid's supreme court, Garzón is accused of breaking rules by approving police taps on conversations between defence lawyers and their clients in a corruption investigation focusing on the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy's People's party (PP). Crowds of protesters gathered outside the court to support the judge, whose supporters claim is the subject of a campaign of persecution triggered by his decision to investigate human rights crimes committed under Franco. A second, even more controversial, trial is to start next week. It will see Garzón accused of twisting the law in order to open a formal investigation into the death or disappearance of 110,000 people allegedly killed under Franco's regime. Garzón has pledged to fight, but privately believes he will be found guilty because he has made too many enemies. He was suspended because of the Franco case in May 2010, but denies all the allegations. Court sources said the hearing that starts on Tuesday will last two or three days. Rajoy was a ferocious critic of Garzón as he helped uncover a network of corruption involving PP regional governments in Valencia and Madrid. "Just because a judge is investigating a crime doesn't mean that he can do whatever he wants," said Ignacio Peláez, one of the lawyers whose prison conversations with clients were recorded. "Even criminals have certain rights." His defence is expected to argue that, since another judge backed Garzón's move to tape the defence lawyers' conversations, he cannot be accused of deliberately dictating measures generally known to be against the law. Both Garzón's supporters and the rightwing Clean Hands trade union, which brought the case against him for investigating Franco's crimes, believe the supreme court has programmed the corruption case first in order to draw attention away from the Franco case. "It is the only thing we agree on," said Miguel Bernad of Clean Hands. "He wants the Franco trial first so he can make out he is the victim of pro-Francoists. We want it first because we lodged our writ long before the others." Relatives of those killed by Franco's regime will be among the protesters. Argentinian Manoli Labrador, whose father, two brothers and sister-in-law were killed by the military juntas in Argentina, will join them. "He has always listened to the victims," she said. "That is why we must support him." Garzón made use of international human rights laws to bring groundbreaking cases against Argentinian junta thugs in Madrid, forcing Argentinian courts to eventually open their own investigations. The arrest of Pinochet brought two sentences from the law lords in the UK allowing for his extradition to Spain. That sparked a similar round of cases in Chile. A third case, involving allegations that Garzón should have ruled himself out of investigating a complaint against the Santander bank, has not yet been scheduled. Prosecutors claim Garzón had received money from Santander while on a year's sabbatical at New York University – something the university denies.