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Crusading Spanish judge is suspended for career-ending 11 years

February 9, 2012 |  9:37 am

Baltasar-garzon
REPORTING FROM MADRID -- Spain's most famous judge, heralded abroad for seeking to put dictators behind bars, has been found guilty of overstepping his authority in a corruption probe here.

Baltasar Garzón won global fame for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. He's been dubbed a "dictator-hunter" abroad for championing the principle of "universal jurisdiction," the idea that some crimes are so heinous that they deserve to be investigated, no matter where or when.

But his crusade hit a snag Thursday in Spain. The country's Supreme Court convicted Garzón of misusing his authority while investigating alleged corruption involving figures in Spain's now-ruling conservative party.

The high court barred Garzón, 56, from the bench for 11 years, a decision that cannot be appealed and that effectively ends his career in Spain because he will be past retirement age when the suspension ends.

But it's unclear what effect, if any, Thursday's ruling will have on Garzón's international work. He has served as an advisor to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and has investigated political crimes and genocide in Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Rwanda and Tibet. Garzón even tried to investigate former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales for allegedly authorizing torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That case was dropped amid fierce American diplomatic pressure.

"Judge Garzón is still a heroic figure in many parts of the world, and he's not going to have difficulty finding people who want to use his investigative skills," said Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with Human Rights Watch who knows the judge personally and traveled to Madrid to watch his trial. 

Garzón's conviction came in one of three trials against him. He is awaiting a verdict in a case that wrapped up Wednesday, involving his probe into more than 100,000 deaths and disappearances that date back to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. Garzón is accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law that prohibits investigations into political crimes from the war and nearly 40-year military dictatorship that followed.

A third case, involving alleged payments from a Spanish bank, has yet to begin. It is the only case that  carries the possibility of jail time if Garzón is convicted.

Garzón's job as an investigative judge at Spain's National Court was like that of a U.S. district attorney. For years, he helped put drug barons, Basque terrorists and corrupt politicians behind bars. In 2009, Garzón ordered wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between inmates and their lawyers, as part of a larger corruption probe involving the conservative Popular Party.

Garzón's hunch was right, and one of the lawyers was indicted. But the seven-member Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that those wiretaps were illegal.

Brody said some of Garzón's colleagues backed his decision to order the wiretaps.

"There are many judges who agreed that it was proper for Judge Garzón to do what he did," Brody said. "Yet he's the one who is being prosecuted for it."

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-- Lauren Frayer

Photo: Judge Baltasar Garzon, foreground, arrives for the last day of his trial at the Supreme Court in Madrid on Wednesday. Banners held by supporters read "Justice" and "Spain back to front, Corrupt people and fascists put a judge on trial." Credit: Paul White / Associated Press

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