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Baltasar Garzón’s Battle

by Steven Adolf

Since the eighties Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón has gained a name as a tireless fighter against terror all over the world. He was the man who had Pinochet arrested in 1998. But since he began an inquiry into the crimes committed during the Franco regime, the old Spanish elite within the Spanish judiciary have turned on him.

Baltasar Garzón’s Battle He is always surrounded by bodyguards. When he briskly walks up the steps to the national courthouse in the centre of Madrid, or when he crosses the street to have dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant. Whenever I run into him, they are present.
Baltasar Garzón leads an armored life. The guards are there when he wakes up, when he is transported in a bombproof car, and when he gives a lecture about poetry or works out at the gym. ‘Superjudge’ Baltasar Garzón is permanently protected. Sometimes there are two bodyguards, sometimes four, depending on the level of danger he is exposed to, or the willingness of the local authorities to provide them.
Target of official ire
Not everybody is prepared to give protection. Take the American government: when Garzón was in New York for nine months in 2005 to give lectures on terrorism, the authorities said they lacked resources. But the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks make it clear the Americans were not fond of the superjudge. They were angry about the judicial inquiry he had initiated into high-ranking U.S. policy makers’ involvement in the torture of suspected Muslim terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. Their ire was particularly provoked when Garzón suggested prosecuting ex-president George Bush, along with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Spanish ex-prime minister José Maria Aznar, for the illegal war in Iraq.
One never gets used to the protection. Garzón is aware that the list of drug barons, war criminals, arms dealers and terrorists who would gladly be rid of him is long and varied. But that’s a price he’s prepared to pay to pursue a busy life centered on fighting large-scale crime. But what is harder for him to bear – as one can tell when meeting him – is that he now stands accused in the dock himself.
It sounds tongue in cheek, a scene from Pulp Fiction: the forces of evil unite to ensure that he who fights against crime loses his power. ‘Supergarzón’, the man who created the global chance to prosecute dictators and war criminals, now faces prosecution himself. It is very possible that his career in the Spanish judiciary will come to an end, perhaps even worse may follow.
Tireless pursuit of justice
Baltasar Garzón (55) knows the dark side of Spain. He grew up as a son of a farmer in a village near Jaén, a province of Andalusia with the highest concentration of olive trees in the world. Until quite recently the Spanish agrarian nobility viewed the peasants there as serfs. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and under the dictatorship of Franco (until 1975) terror was widespread and many disappeared into mass graves.
From his early years Garzón was a boy with a calling. He considered becoming a priest for a long time, but he decided to study law. In the late eighties he joined the central judiciary in Madrid, which deals with the country’s large criminal cases. Garzón quickly made a name for himself as a tireless adversary of the Basque separatist movement ETA. But he also gained fame as a researcher into the dark Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), an alliance of paramilitaries – clandestinely sponsored by the Spanish government – who executed presumed ETA-terrorists.
Without discriminating, he tackled two sides of the same coin: terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Driven to fight terror
The violence would follow him like a shadow. A year after joining the judiciary, an ETA commander killed one of his close colleagues. Public prosecutor Carmen Tagle, a friend who babysat Garzon’s kids, was shot in cold blood by a murder squad awaiting her return from work. A photograph of Garzon dancing sevillanas with Tagle still adorns the desk in his office. The violence motivated Garzón more than ever to combat terror. The Italian mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, who was blown up with his car in 1992 in Palermo, is an inspiration to Garzón. The fight against terror, whether that terror originates with ideological movements, organised crime, or the state, became the driving force of his life.
Garzón is often accused of vanity, due to the dynamic leading role he played in Spain’s often failing judicial system. It has to be said that he sometimes committed sloppy legal errors due to the extreme workload he took on and the pressure under which he worked. Nevertheless he contributed significantly to the final collapse of ETA. Garzón not only imprisoned armed terrorists but he also ensured that the financial and social infrastructure which sustained the violence was systematically tackled. He also took on the powerful Galician drugs cartels and the weapons dealers of Marbella with success.
Facing down ridicule
His international breakthrough came as a result of his research into operation Cóndor, the code name under which the Chilean and Argentinean juntas in the seventies and eighties had thousands of (perceived) opponents ‘disappeared’, tortured to death or drugged and thrown out of airplanes above the ocean.

Initially he was ridiculed when he called on Argentina’s ex-president Isabel Perón to act as a witness, and issued an arrest warrant in Madrid for the general and ex-junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri. But these actions kick-started a serious prosecution. In 1998 he had the Chilean ex-dictator Pinochet arrested during a shopping holiday in London. The extradition request to Spain eventually failed, but the situation had definitively changed because the principle of universal extradition had been accepted for the first time. Now, thanks to Garzon, it’s possible to prosecute perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity, regardless of time or place. Pinochet and the Chilean and Argentinean military could no longer hide behind self-bestowed amnesty or exemption from prosecution for life. For all those wanting to follow in their footsteps, the world had become a less safe place.

Overstepping the mark
But Garzon’s biggest success has also proven to be his downfall. The superjudge was charged by the Spanish Supreme Court last year with abuse of power due to an investigation he wished to open into crimes committed during the regime of former Spanish dictator Franco. For Garzón, this seemed to be nothing more than a logical next step. If he could target Pinochet, then why not investigate the crimes committed by Franco in his own backyard through a legal investigation into the arrest and disappearance of around 100,000 Spanish citizens between 1936 and 1951?
That appeared to be overstepping a mark. Although Franco died in 1975, many Spaniards still find it difficult to acknowledge the terror of his reign as criminal. A proper investigation has never been undertaken. During the restoration of democracy in 1977 a general pardon was issued for all ‘political’ crimes committed during the dictatorship. The United Nations has called on Spain to repeal that law. But opposition among the political and judicial elite is fierce, especially at the highest level of the judiciary, where the same judges and public prosecutors who were comfortably nurtured under the former dictatorship, still preside.
Garzón knows that these same magistrates have been longing for his disappearance for years. They do not like his leading role and they do not like his leftist politics. In the nineties he briefly entered politics as an independent candidate for the Socialists. The fact that he immediately thereafter reopened counterterrorism efforts against the ETA, which contributed to the fall of the same socialist cabinet, doesn’t seem to make any difference to that dislike.
And thus something unprecedented in Europe occurred. An extreme right splinter group and the Falange Española – a remnant from the Franco era – lodged a complaint against Garzón, citing the unlawful opening of a preliminary judicial inquiry. Rather than being defendants, Gárzon now faced them in court as plaintives. More powerful enemies sensed opportunity. Another two inquiries were opened into possible abuse of power by Garzón during his conduct of a case. (A case concerning accusations of corruption against the conservative Popular Party). The result: Garzón’s temporary suspension from the bench.
Now with his case pending in front of the Supreme Court, Garzón divides his time between advising the International Criminal Court in The Hague and appearing abroad at book presentations and events hosted in his honour. He will never bring it up himself – he rarely speaks to the press – but something seems to have broken in Baltasar Garzón. The superjudge has been sidelined. Perhaps forever. No more heroes anymore? Not for the many victims of terror, from the dazed mothers of the Argentinean Plaza de Mayo to Basque politicians and journalists.  They have seen their hope for justice fulfilled by Garzón’s perseverance. The rest of the world knows that it is becoming harder for those committing genocide to avoid prosecution. That progress has not been undone and will remain, even if Judge Garzón loses his last battle in court.
Translated by Fernande van Tets


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Steven Adolf

Steven Adolf

Steven Adolf is a freelance correspondent and economic journalist living in Spain. He has written books about Spain and Morocco. 2009 saw the publication of Reuzentonijn, his book about the decline of the blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea.


“I’ve been following Baltasar Garzón closely for years and I think he’s an exceptional man. Too often the victims of terrible events are forgotten and no-one is ever tried for the injustices done to them. Sadly that’s especially true of crimes against humanity which are particularly sensitive for social or political reasons and which everyone would prefer just to forget about.

Garzón has made it his life’s work to try and prosecute these sorts of cases. He has given millions of people around the world hope of justice. His work demands courage and perseverance, combined with something I call – for want of a better term - a sense of public responsibility. It demands sacrifices for a wider community that take precedence over personal interest. Sometimes it even means working against your own interests, and living with the uncomfortable feeling that you’re being dismissed as a hypocritical show-off, rather than someone who is trying to do good. Someone dedicating himself to others? Something very wrong there!

That’s one of the things that most attracts me to the One11 project: you can show that this sense of public responsibility does exist, that it takes all kinds of different forms and that it does make a difference – despite all the difficulties. That’s a great message to take into a new year.”