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Crusading Spanish judge is back in court — as defendant

January 18, 2012 |  8:53 am


REPORTING FROM MADRID — The tables have turned for Spain's most famous judge, who finds himself in the defendant's chair this week.

Baltasar Garzon rocketed to legal stardom for using the principle of universal jurisdiction to indict former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He also ordered Osama bin Laden's arrest, prosecuted members of the Argentine junta and investigated 75-year-old crimes from the Spanish Civil War.

But the darling of global human rights groups has made enemies at home and is now up before Spain’s Supreme Court, charged with illegally ordering wiretaps of conversations between jail inmates and their lawyers in 2008.

Garzon suspected inmates of using lawyers to launder money in a bribery scandal involving Spain's Popular Party, the now-ruling conservatives; one of those lawyers was later indicted. But Spanish law technically only allows wiretaps in terrorism cases.

Garzon, 56, denies any wrongdoing. “Obviously, the interpretation that I make is that wiretaps can be authorized with a court order and not just in cases of terrorism,” he testified Tuesday.

The court proceedings -– the first of three prosecutions against him –- began Tuesday and are expected to last three days. Next week, he faces a longer trial in which he's accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law by investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of Spaniards during the 1936-39 civil war.

No date has been set for a third trial involving alleged illegal payments he received from Spanish banks.

Garzon has already been suspended from the bench and faces a 17-year ban if convicted in the wiretapping case. That would likely end his domestic career, though he could return to his job as an advisor to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

He appeared in court for a second day on Wednesday wearing his own black judge's robe trimmed in white lace. On Tuesday, a few dozen supporters gathered outside the court to cheer his arrival.

As an investigative judge at Spain's National Court, Garzon's job was similar to that of a U.S. district attorney. He championed Spain's use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes he found deplorable, regardless of whether there was any Spanish connection.

But Garzon's crusades sometimes irritated the government, and lawmakers passed a 2009 resolution requiring such prosecutions to be somehow related to Spain.


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Photo: Spanish judge turned defendant Baltasar Garzon sits in the Supreme Court in Madrid on Tuesday during the first day of his trial. Credit: Javier Lizon / European Pressphoto Agency