It seems almost inexplicable that Baltasar Garzón, the crusading defender of human rights and the scourge of fascist dictators and corrupt politicians, should find himself on trial and then stripped of his legal status, and yet that is what happened this week in a ruling which shames Spanish justice.
Baltasar Garzón has been a high profile investigating magistrate for more than 20 years, and is seen internationally as a courageous and committed individual, unafraid of pursuing corrupt politicians, drug cartels, terrorists, and dictators. So what happened? How is it that such an internationally renowned individual falls foul of the Spanish legal framework?
The charges laid against Garzón were initiated by three neo-fascist groups: Manos Limpias, Libertad y Identidad, and the JONS, the doctrinal heirs of Franco. They accused Garzón of over-stepping his authority in investigating Franco's crimes, and of authorising the opening of the mass graves in order to identify the 115,000 or more missing people, executed in and after the Spanish Civil War. The fascist groups, with the support of the right wing Partido Popular, claimed that the 1977 amnesty law granted immunity to those who committed the crimes. Garzón argued that crimes against humanity don't get a free pass in international law. Jurists around the world supported him in droves.
In addition, there was a ludicrous case in which he was accused of dropping a charge in exchange for sponsorship for a lecture tour, but the other remaining case is interesting. It concerns a web of corruption involving senior members of the Partido Popular, the so-called Gürtel case. Already many PP senior members have been convicted and jailed as a result of the investigation but in order to prevent the hiding of the proceeds, Garzón authorised the taping of conversations which enabled the investigators to track the money. Some of those conversations involved corrupt legal representatives and the claim is that it violated their client privileges.
Clearly the PP has a vested interest in Garzón's demise because his fall would signify the end of the Gürtel case and his annoying meddling in some of the financial irregularities associated with them. But surely, the right wing alone was not sufficient to bring down such a singularly effective and respected legal figure? Why then didn't the PSOE government led by Zapatero make any effort to defend him? It couldn't simply be a matter of trying to maintain neutrality since the PP in no way restricted themselves in similar measure.
Between 1983 and 1986, under the government of Felipe Gonzales, an unofficial but government sponsored terror group known as GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación) carried out assassinations of leading ETA members throughout the Basque country and southern France. Using the same terror tactics as the previous Franco regime, this government of the transition period was running a death squad. It was Garzón's investigations and refusal to be silenced that led to its exposure and the subsequent jailing of leading members of the government. That didn't endear him to some in the PSOE. The whole sorry tale is admirably documented in Dirty War, Clean Hands by Paddy Woodworth.
Even so, the final judgment was somewhat strange. The five members of the Comisión Permanente del Consejo del Poder Judicial, consisted of two conservatives, two progressives, and the president. The two progressives at least were expected to support Garzón and yet the judgment was unanimous.
And Garzón had lodged a request to be allowed to serve as a consultant for seven months in the International Criminal Court, a position he was eminently qualified to take up. It seemed that the progressives were in favour of the secondment, and if it was to be granted, they would approve his suspension, effectively ending his Spanish career – a shoddy deal at best but one largely expected to be carried through. So the vote was unanimous and Garzón was suspended. And then it all unraveled.
Instead of agreeing to his move to the ICC, the progressives, Almudena Lastra and Margarita Robles, insisted on getting five reports before approving the move. The president Divar, together with the progressives, would have been sufficient to enable Garzón to take up his post in the ICC had they voted as expected. Despite widespread expectation amongst the judges, it didn't happen.
So what happened to the widespread support for Garzón, the occupation of the medical faculty in Complutense University in Madrid, the appeals from leading figures in the arts world, Pilar Bardem, Pedro Almodóvar, the challenging statements from the union leaders? Such support was vocal and strong but there was no social force to back it up.
To many socialists, Garzón was also responsible for the suppression of left wing publications and organisations in the Basque Country, closed down in the blanket attacks on any source of political support for the independence aspirations of ETA. Socialists who have committed no crimes are in prison as a result of some of Garzón's actions. So despite defending him against the attacks of the fascists, such support is not uncritical.
But more importantly, the rise of the right and the surfacing of fascist organisations is a consequence of the suppression of the discussion of the crimes of Francoism. Despite the mass support for the Law of Historical Memory, despite PP claims to the contrary, grassroots organisations are very weak. Only 15% of spanish workers are in trade unions and unemployment is at unprecedented levels around 20%. Even the socialist government, which pledged that it would not make workers pay for the bankers' crisis, have just announced 5% cuts in public sector pay and a pensions freeze.
In that environment, mobilising masses of people to defend a courageous judge is unlikely if not impossible. The only organisations willing to defend him have demoralised members cowed by mass unemployment. The right wing have chosen the perfect time to attack a leader of human rights. As Zapatero moves rapidly to the right chasing banker demands, the extreme right gain more respectability and will be emboldened to organise more in the open.
The loss of Garzón is significant and ought to worry anyone concerned about the growth of the ultra-right in Spain. There never was an effective reckoning with Francoism; it was buried in the olvido leaving many Francoists in posts in the judiciary and other institutions. Now that working people are cowed by economic pressure and it seems being turned on by Zapatero, the right is on the rise and will grow in confidence. We all have reason to be worried as these movements are growing across Europe, feeding off racism and xenophobia. Garzón is the first prominent figure to fall.