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Spanish Justice in Disgrace

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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.

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About Bob Lloyd

  • CB:
    As I pointed out, the case against Garzón over illegal wiretaps is precisely the Gürtel case. Garzón denies the charge of “malfeasance” over issuing the order to record conversations and presumably he has a reasonable defence or he wouldn’t have done so. We’ll see what that is when it comes to trial. It’s illegal to wiretap without authorisation from a judge, but in this case Garzón gave that authorisation. Whether he exceeded his power is another matter and will presumably be tested in court.

    It’s interesting that the PP, which was heavily implicated in the Gürtel case, was the most active in trying to undermine Garzón’s investigation – we even had Rajoy claiming that Zapatero was behind a vendetta against the party.

    Varela, as I pointed out, is politically slightly left of centre. The CGPJ split between two conservatives, two progressives and the president, would have led one to expect that the result would not have been unaminous, and that’s the curious thing. It looks as though the progressives at the last minute changed their minds about the move of Garzón to the ICC. It’s still not clear what manoevrings led to that change.

    Assuming that Garzón is guilty of illegal wire-tapping is unjustified before any evidence has been presented and considered. What is clear though is that the PP has been on a crusade against Garzón for as long as he’s been pursuing the Gürtel case and judging by the number of convicted PP functionaries, they had good cause to be worried.

    It’s clear that the judiciary don’t like the public attention Garzón brings to the cases he works on. They prefer justice behind closed doors. Although the CGPJ political composition was fairly balanced, the judiciary as a whole is heavily right wing. Garzón is seen as rocking their very comfortable boat, making a reality of the idea of public accountability. Most of them don’t want attention placed on the crimes of the Franco era because it’s likely that some of them may have the focus placed on them too.

    That also explains why, instead of letting him work as an adviser to the ICC while his case was prepared for court, they chose to suspend him within two days of the path being cleared to do so. They could quite reasonably have sent him to the Hague for seven months while the cases were prepared and he would still have faced all charges and would have been judged in court. Instead they chose to act as fast as possible to suspend him.

    The main beneficiaries, apart from the fascist groups getting publicity, are those in the judiciary wanting to turn away from the responsibility of the crimes against humanity, and the PP who can breathe a little easier with Garzón off their case. The PSOE won’t be shedding any tears because the old political stagers view him with suspicion and resentment.

  • agl

    Garzon’s legal woes also have resulted from anger about the way he operated. Fellow judges accustomed to discretion in the judiciary system appeared to be fed up with his aggressive, headline-grabbing style and his status akin to that of a rock star among his most fervent fans, many of them living overseas in areas such as Latin America.

    Garzon’s critics also said he had a spotty record in winning convictions in high-profile cases and sometimes cut procedural corners…

  • CB

    Among the things that Garzon is charged with is the placing of illegal wiretaps involving prison conversations between lawyers and the accused in corruption case.

    Is the writer from a country where this is allowed?

    As a minor aside, judge Varela who is central to the proceedings was placed in his post by the PSOE. He is most decidedly not a fascist. Neither are the socialist judges on CGPJ that were part of the unanimous vote to put him on trial.

    Aside from the ideological noise, this has got legs. He has overstepped the bounds of legality on a number of counts.

    Did I ask if this is permitted on the Moral High Ground?

  • Some interesting discussion here. Of the three cases against Garzón, the suggestion that he took bribes is the least credible and no-one has yet produced anything that looks like serious evidence. The Gürtel case is clearly a thorn in the side of the PP who have repeatedly tried to limit Garzón’s investigation and they have a great deal to lose, not least leading members who are finding their way to jail.

    But the case regarding the Law of Historic Memory and the 1977 amnesty is the most politically sharp. Certainly Garzón went after Felipe Gonzales but he did so knowing that it would end his own political future – who knows what might have happened had Felipe Gonzales courted him more effectively, but that’s conjecture. But I like to think that the GAL death squads would have been brought to account in any case.

    And it’s certainly true that Garzón’s had his share of defeats, though the Necora operation was initiated by Varela himself – I think Garzón reopened it after Varela had dropped it. And in any case, there was some measure of success there though some individuals slipped through the net.

    I’ve seen references before to Garzón’s questionable methods but given his wide range of opponents, it seems strange that no-one has challenged him formally. He might have friends in high places though it doesn’t seem that way. Instead, the judiciary seem pretty fed up with him, no doubt partly because he’s always in the limelight and bringing an unwelcome illumination of the judicial process. But it’s the close link between the far right and the judiciary which is the worrying element.

    One of the reasons I think Garzón took on the crimes against humanity case against Franco et al is that left to the local courts, influence could be brought to bear to prevent the exhumations and to restrict the material support guaranteed to families to help them trace their disappeared relatives. By making it a high profile case, he could prevent that deliberate lack of support at the local level. In other words, he could avoid the PP sabotaging the operation to help families find their disappeared relatives. In any case, once the attention was guaranteed, he quickly handed back the jurisdiction.

    It’s hard to imagine anyone not regarding the killing of 115,000 people in the post-civil war period as a crime against humanity and certainly internationally there doesn’t seem to be that kind of doubt. And the argument that the Amnesty did not cover such crimes is one established in international court precedents I believe. So it isn’t a question of how to classify the crime. Garzón wasn’t voiding the amnesty at all, he was simply arguing that mass killings perpetrated by Franco’s regime constituted a crime against humanity and therefore were not exempted by the amnesty law under international law.

    The issue about Carrillo is interesting. In Ian Gibson’s book “Paraceullos: cómo fue” there is arguably enough evidence to bring a case against Carrillo who certainly had knowledge of what was happening when more than 2000 prisoners were executed in 1936. It is certainly clear that Garzón would be just the sort to chase after the truth and that might have alienated some on the left, but Carrillo was a communist party leader, not a member of the PSOE. Would the parliamentary left really have wanted to protect him? I doubt it.

    Lastly I’d say that the demonstrators focussed on the PP precisely because it was the far right, with PP support, who were attacking Garzón. It’s not a question of crying wolf because right across Europe the far right is growing in strength. As the PP move rightwards, followed in short order by the PSOE, it becomes easier for the far right to operate with more confidence. It was the PP who encouraged and helped the moves to undermine Garzón in the press and that’s why they were targetted by the demonstrators.

  • By the way Ruvy, the main prosecutor against Garzón was Varela who is almost in agreement with Garzón politically and seems to have had no particular personal animosity against Garzón himself. There was though some question about Varela “advising” the fascist groups on how to phrase their accusations so it would be acceptable to a court – but that was investigated and he was cleared of any wrong-doing.

  • [But you yourself pointed out that it was the leftists who sunk this brave jurist and you pointed out why. All I’m telling you is that this pattern of seeking personal vengeance at the expense of all else, including rule of law, is a trait of the “left” world-wide.]

    No Ruvy, that’s not what I said. What I said was that he’d lost the support of some of the old stagers from the PSOE because of his willingness to pursue the GAL case. Some in the PSOE tried to get him to drop it, and it seems after being elected himself on a PSOE platform, he then still chased down those involved in the GAL under the Felipe Gonzales government. Some in the PSOE did support him.

    You can’t draw from that that the left was responsible for bringing down Garzón, though I think it’s fair to argue that their failure to support him left the right wing free rein to attack him. It’s clearly not a case of personal vengeance on the left superceding the needs of the rule of law. The active proponents in the case were three fascist groups supported by the Partido Popular. And it’s not vengeance driving this but a defensive/offensive reaction by organised fascists outside the judiciary, supported by covert supporters inside it.

  • STM

    Spanish justice in disgrace. That’s what happens when you have an absolutist monarchy, a descent into anarchy and then a fascist government for 40 years.

    Oh, and the small matter of lack of transparency in government and fearful levels of corruption at every tier of government, right down to the village councils. I thin the EU is having plenty to say about it.

    Let’s hope they’re not a toothless tiger.

  • Bob,

    I’m not disputing your facts; indeed, I’m adding to them. Yes, you are right – a cross section of Spanish society needs to be investigated to clarify the crimes the Falange inflicted upon Spain and the Spanish people.

    But you yourself pointed out that it was the leftists who sunk this brave jurist and you pointed out why. All I’m telling you is that this pattern of seeking personal vengeance at the expense of all else, including rule of law, is a trait of the “left” world-wide.

  • The disgrace is pretty obvious – the judicial system is being used to prevent the investigation of war crimes by Franco’s regime. The disappearance of 115,000 people should be investigated and the “olvido” has effectively prevented that from taking place. The international rule of law means that war crimes don’t get to hide behind amnesties.

    And of course, there’s a big difference between justice and vengeance. The relatives of the disappeared are not looking for vengeance and in any case couldn’t get it because the generals and Franco are now long dead.

    And in Spain, it’s not just the left who want the crimes to be investigated but a very broad cross-section of society including many PP members. The reason the right wing, and particularly the fascists, is so opposed to such an investigation is that the judiciary stayed mostly unchanged as a result of the democratisation process leaving the judicial structures very highly politicised and pro-Franco.

    An investigation could implicate some of those still in post with torture and disappearances as late as the early 70s. Should those people still be active in the judiciary? Surely the rule of law ought to apply to them too?

    The disgrace is that leading players in the Spanish legal system are unwilling to apply the rule of law in line with international standards of human rights despite formally endorsing them.

  • John Wilson

    This is a shocking case, and a warning of the return of Fascism.

  • I fail to see the “disgrace” here. Leftists like vengeance served up cold – all over the world. We see it all the time in Israel, Americans are seeing it (and having trouble realizing what they are seeing) – and now, you are seeing it in Spain. For leftists, personal vengeance is far more important than “rule of law”, which is what you document being trampled in post-Franco Spain. I’m not surprised at all. World-wide, the concept of “rule of law” is getting buried under the political aspirations of scum from all sides of the political spectrum. Spain is not a “disgrace”, just another case in a very disturbing world-wide pattern of the destruction of even the formal elements of democracy.