Baltasar Garzon: the Spanish judge setting the world to rights

He snared Chile's former dictator; now he's chasing the Argentines. Who is this Spanish super judge and what makes him tick?
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The Independent Online

He snared Chile's former dictator; now he's chasing the Argentines. Who is this Spanish super judge and what makes him tick?

He snared Chile's former dictator; now he's chasing the Argentines. Who is this Spanish super judge and what makes him tick?

His name is Baltasar Garzon, but not much more is known about Spain's top investigative judge other than at age 44 he has caused a worldwide stir and that few magistrates can match his unrelenting zeal in pursuing each case that comes his way.

Garzon, a bespectacled, dapper dresser who dabbled briefly in politics, is intensely private and never grants interviews.

While it might appear that Garzon expanded his case by pursuing the Argentine generals after bagging former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the fact is that Garzon began working on the Argentine case first.

The indictment Tuesday of 98 Argentine officers, including 12 leaders of the former military junta, on charges of genocide, terrorism and torture was the culmination of a long investigation assigned him by the National Court in 1996.

The probe, involving hundreds of witnesses, began when a group of human rights lawyers asked the National Court to investigate the disappearances during the 1976-1983 Argentine dictatorship's "Dirty War."

The lawyers contended, and later were vindicated by Spain's top judicial authorities, that the country's penal code gives it jurisdiction to prosecute genocide regardless of where it happen or the nationality of the accused.

The case was assigned to Garzon, one of six magistrates. They conduct investigations, issue search warrants and detention orders, but do not try cases. Their job is to take testimony and decide whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial.

Garzon took the world by surprise a year ago by ordering the arrest of Pinochet, who was convalescing in London from back surgery.

Few thought the Pinochet case would prosper. But today the 83-year-old retired general is fighting to avoid extradition and trial in Spain for alleged human rights abuses during his 1973-90 dictatorship.

Garzon has accused Pinochet of being the mastermind behind Operation Condor, in which military men in Chile and Argentina shared information and resources in suppressing dissidents.

A barrage of criticism has followed Garzon's action, ranging from accusations of Spanish imperialism from its former Latin American colonies to assertions that Garzon is simply a publicity hound.

He has solid support in Spain.

"The possibility that all human right abuses should be pursued can only be positive," the Madrid daily El Mundo wrote in an editorial Wednesday.

It noted nearly 600 Spaniards or people of Spanish descent were among the Argentine "disappeared."

The conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Joaquin Almunia's opposition Socialist Party reject the imperialist tags.

"Only the government is responsible for Spain's foreign policy; not a judge. Garzon, whatever people say about him, is simply working within the law, be it for better or worse," Almunia said Thursday.

The question has been raised abroad, especially in Chile and Argentina, of why Garzon has not gone after those responsible for political crimes committed during the nearly 40-year Spanish military dictatorship of late Gen. Francisco Franco.

The answer is that Garzon doesn't choose his cases and so far no one has presented allegations in court to open such an investigation.

Spain, anxious to heal wounds dating back to the 1936-39 Civil War that ended with Franco in power, passed an Amnesty Law in 1977, two years after the dictator's death. There continues to be tacit agreement among all parties not to seek retribution or disturb Spain's new democracy, no matter that tens of thousands of people were killed by Franco's forces in the aftermath of the war.

But echoing expressions from abroad, the daily El Pais asked editorially Wednesday, "What would we think if a foreign judge were to formulate accusations against old men responsible for tortures and other crimes during Franco times..."

In nearly 15 years at the National Court, Garzon has risen to be Spain's top investigative magistrate, tackling drug lords and government-backed death squads.

Born in the olive-growing heartland of Andalucia, Garzon became a provincial judge at 23 and a National Court magistrate at 32.

He took leave of absence from the judiciary in the mid-1990s to serve as an independent deputy in Parliament for the then-ruling Socialist party.

He resigned after a year in government. Some say he lost faith in the government's sincerity about judicial reforms. Others say he was upset at being passed over for the job of justice minister.

Still unanswered is whether Garzon will press ahead and seek extradition of the Argentine officers.

They are safe as long as they stay at home. Should they travel abroad, like Pinochet, Garzon could press for their immediate detention on international warrants.

Undoubtedly Garzon realizes that chances are slim that any of those he has accused, be they from Chile or Argentina, will ever stand trial in Spain. Too many appeals are possible.

But the lawyers, and the victims they represent, argue that every step Garzon takes is at the very least a warning to rulers that they are accountable for their human rights abuses.

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