Spanish judge who indicted bin Laden suspended

Spanish judge who indicted bin Laden suspended
# 14 May 2010 20:52 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. The Spanish judge who became an international hero by going after Augusto Pinochet and Osama bin Laden was suspended Friday for allegedly abusing his authority by investigating what is arguably Spain’s own biggest unresolved case: atrocities committed during and after its ruinous Civil War, APA reports quoting “Associated Press”.
The punishment could effectively end Judge Baltasar Garzon’s career.
The unanimous decision by a judicial oversight board, the General Council of the Judiciary, was made during an emergency meeting about Garzon, said its spokeswoman, Gabriela Bravo.
Supporters chanted, cheered and clapped later as Garzon emerged from the nearby National Court, where he works. He hugged co-workers and appeared to be holding back tears before getting into a bulletproof limousine and riding away.
Garzon, 54, famous worldwide for his cross-border justice cases, has been removed from his post pending his trial on charges of knowingly going beyond the limits of his jurisdiction in 2008 by investigating the execution or disappearance of more than 100,000 civilians at the hands of supporters of Gen. Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War or in the early years of the Franco dictatorship.
Until Garzon acted, there had been no official probe of such atrocities, which were covered by an amnesty granted by Spain’s Parliament in 1977, two years after Franco died, as the country moved toward reconciliation.
Spain’s current Socialist government, which has generally been supportive of Garzon, said it respected the judiciary watchdog’s decision but insisted he is innocent until proven guilty. "The process is not over," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.
Some say Garzon’s legal woes also have resulted from anger about the way he operated. Fellow judges accustomed to discretion in the judiciary system appeared to be fed up with his aggressive, headline-grabbing style and his status akin to that of a rock star among his most fervent fans, many of them living overseas in areas such as Latin America.
Garzon’s critics also said he had a spotty record in winning convictions in high-profile cases and sometimes cut procedural corners.
The judge is under investigation in two other cases as well: one involving money that a Spanish bank paid to sponsor human rights seminars he gave while on sabbatical in New York a few years ago, and another in connection with jailhouse wiretaps he ordered as part of a probe targeting the conservative opposition Popular Party.
The panel that suspended him Friday is made up of political appointees and deeply divided along party lines.
Garzon was indicted last month by the Supreme Court in the civil war case, and this week the court threw out a final appeal that could have spared him from going on trial soon. The judicial oversight body then had no choice but to suspend Garzon.
Still, even though the decision was widely expected, many in Spain are treating it as marking the end of Garzon’s career, regardless of what the verdict in the trial might be. Garzon’s lawyer, Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda, said as much a few weeks ago.
Earlier this week, Garzon requested a leave of absence from his post at the National Court to accept a job offer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This was seen as an effort to shield himself from suspension.
A subcommittee of the judiciary board was meeting Friday evening to see if the suspended Garzon can be allowed to take up that job without resigning from his post in Madrid.
Garzon shot to fame after having Pinochet arrested while the aging former despot was visiting London in 1998, and trying in vain to have him extradited to Spain for trial over torture and other abuses committed during his dictatorship in Chile. With that he was credited with ushering in a new era in international law.
Garzon also indicted bin Laden in 2003, and Spanish colleagues took on cases involving abuses in such faraway places as Tibet and Rwanda.
As a result, Garzon’s name became synonymous with the concept of universal jurisdiction — the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere.
But extraditions have been rare, and there has only been one conviction, that of an Argentine ’dirty war’ suspect in 2005.
And after receiving complaints from countries targeted in such Spanish probes, such as Israel, Spain changed its law last year so that these cases now require a clear link to Spain, such as Spanish victims.
On Friday, human rights groups lamented how Garzon is being treated.
"Judge Garzon’s suspension will be mourned by human rights activists around the world. Garzon helped to deliver justice for atrocity victims abroad, and now he’s being punished for trying to do the same thing at home," said Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch.
Fernando Magan, chief counsel for the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory, a group that had campaigned for the Franco probe to be opened, said the ruling was a "blow to democracy and to the independence of Spain’s judiciary. This is scary."
Magan said Garzon ruffled one too many feathers by starting the Franco investigation, then made matters worse by opening the corruption probe involving members of the Popular Party.
Garzon has denied any wrongdoing in the civil war case and said his probe was legitimate. He said Franco-era crimes amounted to crimes against humanity. For example, he cited a Franco campaign to wipe out opponents and said that cannot be covered by an amnesty.
If convicted in the civil war court case, Garzon would not face jail time, but he could be removed from the National Court for up to 20 years.
Garzon did not speak publicly Friday. But the day before, at a Latin American human rights conference, the clearly crestfallen judge said: "One does not face complex decisions with optimism but rather with calm, with that calm that comes with knowing I am innocent."
"As a man who respects the law, all that is left for me is to take on tomorrow’s decision by exercising my defense," he said.