`Superjudge' - the Spaniard who shopped the dictator

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WHATEVER DECISION the seven British law lords take, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon has ensured his place in history as the man who shopped General Pinochet.

As Judge Garzon listens to the hearing - his trip to London paid for by the highest legal regulatory authority in Spain - he must be amazed his case against the former Chilean dictator has got this far. No one would have predicted that their lordships would be weighing up General Pinochet's immunity from the charges Judge Garzon laid against him of terrorism, genocide and torture. The nickname "Superjudge" will surely stick for ever.

Judge Garzon, 43, was already Spain's best-known investigating magistrate before his request for General Pinochet's arrest last October shot him to international prominence. He had a spectacular record of high-profile crusades against cartels of drug traffickers and state-run terror squads.

Some colleagues complain he steals the limelight. But Chilean human rights lawyers fighting for more than 20 years to bring General Pinochet to justice disagree. "It's not that Garzon thrusts himself forward as a superstar," says Marcela Pradena, a Chilean campaigner in Madrid who escaped General Pinochet's torture chambers. "For years we've been banging on all the doors we could think of. Garzon was the only one who answered."

Judge Garzon is low-key and discreet, seen on television striding to and from the national courtroom with his briefcase, a slight frown, his quiff now streaked with silver. He rarely makes public statements and most Spaniards have never heard his voice. But his capacity for hard work and his razor-sharp brain are legendary.

A non-lawyer friend, trying to explain why Garzon stands out from the pack, says: "I think the key to his personality is that he is stuck in the mentality of someone between the ages of 15 and 20. He's kept his adolescent idealism. Things like international justice that for the rest of us have become cliches, he still believes in with all the fervent naivety of a teenager. He is a bit vain, it's true, but he doesn't hog limelight. He just takes on the stuff other lawyers are too sensible to touch."

Judge Garzon had been destined for priesthood before he was expelled from school for serenading a pupil - Rosario, his future wife.