The superstar Spanish judge who won global fame for aggressively taking on international human rights cases has been convicted of overstepping his jurisdiction in a domestic corruption probe and barred from the bench for 11 years, marking a spectacular fall from grace for one of the nation’s most prominent citizens.
Baltasar Garzon was unanimously convicted on Thursday by a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court. Because he is 56, the punishment could end his Spanish judicial career. Hours after the verdict, hundreds of Garzon supporters braved freezing weather in Madrid’s central Sol plaza shouting “Shame! Shame!” in protest.
It was just one of three cases pending against Garzon, who is still awaiting a verdict in trial on the same charge — knowingly overstepping the bounds of his jurisdiction — for launching a probe in 2008 of right-wing atrocities committed during and after the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939, even though the crimes were covered by a 1977 amnesty.
In Thursday’s verdict, the court ruled that Garzon acted arbitrarily in ordering jailhouse wiretaps of detainees talking to their lawyers, the court said, adding that his actions “these days are only found in totalitarian regimes.”
Ironically, Garzon is best known for indicting a totalitarian ruler, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in 1998, and trying to put him on trial in Madrid for crimes against humanity. He also indicted former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The verdict came despite declarations by Spanish prosecutors that Garzon committed no crime. The charges against him stem from a complaint filed by lawyers who were taped in prison while visiting their clients. In a quirk of Spanish law, people can seek criminal charges even if prosecutors disagree.
Garzon took on cases using the principle of universal jurisdiction — the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere. He and colleagues at the National Court went on to champion the doctrine and try to apply it to abuses in far-flung places like Rwanda and Tibet.
Human rights groups that hold up Garzon as a hero slammed the decision, saying he was targeted by critics who wanted to bring him down.
“It looks like Garzon’s enemies got what they wanted. Absent compelling reasons, the criminal prosecution of a judge for his judicial actions undermines the independence of the judiciary,” said Reed Brody, a senior legal expert for Human Rights Watch.
Although Garzon enjoyed rock-star status among rights groups at home and abroad, he made many enemies in Spain, especially judicial colleagues uncomfortable with his celebrity and allegedly corner-cutting tactics in legal procedures, and conservative politicians who claimed he was more interested in fame than justice.