Gonzalez signs up 'superjudge': Controversial move by Spanish PM brings top magistrate into politics

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HE IS, or was, known in Spain as 'Superjudge'. Young, handsome, fearless and dedicated to putting terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt policemen behind bars. Baltasar Garzon, 37, was a friend and admirer of Italy's late anti-Mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, who was blown to pieces by a Mafia bomb, and was only too aware that one day he might share the same fate.

Under Spain's legal system, where investigating magistrates play a police-like role, the snappily dressed judge with the slicked-back hair was known for popping up at the scene of major drugs busts and jailing terrorists, arms dealers and senior police officials.

Now, after a 'coup' by the Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, that is the talk of the nation, Judge Garzon has plunged head first into politics. He is almost certain to be a member of the next parliament and is highly likely to be a cabinet minister under Mr Gonzalez should the latter pull the party out of its tailspin.

The Prime Minister announced that the country's best-known investigating magistrate would run as an independent parliamentary candidate on the ruling Socialists' ticket for Madrid in the 6 June general elections. Naming him No 2 on the Madrid list, behind Mr Gonzalez himself, virtually guarantees Judge Garzon a parliamentary seat even if the Socialists fail to win nationwide.

The news has split Spain down the middle, pretty much along party lines although even many past Socialist supporters see the Prime Minister's move as a last desperate attempt to boost his party's flagging, and increasingly corruption-tainted, image. Many Spaniards saw the judge's decision to accept as a 'sell-out' by the man who had carried the banner of cleaning out the drugs mafias and corrupt policemen.

Was Mr Gonzalez trying to improve his party's image by signing up Mr Clean? Or was he more concerned with gagging a man who may have more 'dirt' on current and former officials than anyone else in Spain? Whatever the Prime Minister's motives, his gamble will either kill both birds with one stone or backfire.

The usually pro-Socialist El Pais newspaper billed Mr Gonzalez's move as a 'spectacular coup . . . responding to society's demand for greater openness from a party which, after 10 years in power, had shown abundant signs of stagnation and losing touch with citizens'. The conservative daily, El Mundo, saw it somewhat differently, 'as if Robin Hood had suddenly become the Sheriff of Nottingham's valet. They say every person has his price. Garzon had his price.'

For the daily ABC, also conservative and generally supporting the main right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP), it was 'a scandal'. In a front-page comment, the paper said: 'Considered in juridical circles as a mediocre judge, Baltasar Garzon has distinguished himself in recent years by his lack of restraint towards stardom. He likes to appear in newspapers, on TV, carrying out helicopter operations and acting with an infantile mentality like the star of some American TV series.'

Judge Garzon, as investigating magistrate in the Audiencia Nacional (National Court of Justice), had worked closely with Falcone and his successor, Paolo Borsellini, also murdered by the Mafia, on drugs and other cases involving the two countries. The Spanish judge had recently been in Italy to complete his investigations into a Spanish connection in the case of the Achille Lauro, the cruise ship seized by Palestinian guerrillas in 1985.

According to an aide to Judge Garzon, one of the ship's hijackers, in jail in Italy, confirmed 'with 100 per cent certainty' that the man who supplied the group with weapons was a Syrian arms dealer resident in Spain, Monzer al-Kassar. Mr Kassar - who protests his innocence - has been in preventive detention in Spain since last summer on Judge Garzon's orders.

Mr Kassar is known to have had close links with the intelligence services of Syria, Argentina and Spain in the past. A West European diplomat here, commenting on Judge Garzon's entry into the political arena, which will force him to stand down as a judge, predicted the Syrian may not be detained for much longer.

Judge Garzon has not been involved in the so-called Filesa case or other investigations into alleged government corruption. But his agreement with Mr Gonzalez stirred new controversy over one of his most-recent and best-known cases - the investigation of almost the entire anti- drugs squad of the Guardia Civil for allegedly dealing in cocaine themselves.

Judge Garzon ordered a dozen of the squad, including its chief, Commander Jose Ramon Pindado, detained at the end of last year. A senior aide to the judge told the Independent last month that he had a 'watertight' case against Commander Pindado and others for siphoning off large proportions of cocaine hauls. In the same interview, however, the aide warned: 'Pindado knows a lot of things about a lot of people. If he threatens to 'sing', they (the penal section of the National Court of Justice) might order his release.'

In the end, the Court's Penal Section Three confirmed last month there was enough evidence to keep Commander Pindado in detention. Surprisingly, however, it was Judge Garzon himself who ordered the Guardia Civil commander freed on bail earlier this month, although investigations continue.

According to the Spanish press, Mr Gonzalez began his campaign to lure the judge into the political arena on 27 February of this year.

(Photograph omitted)