Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Pinochet case judge put on trial

Spanish judge Balthasar Garzon has been put on trial for ordering a wiretap on prisoners (AP)

The Spanish judge who became an international human rights hero by charging former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has gone on trial over his handling of a domestic corruption probe in a case that could end his career.

Baltasar Garzon was appearing as a criminal defendant at Spain's Supreme Court. He is charged with overstepping his jurisdiction by ordering wiretaps of jail conversations between three defendants and their lawyers.

The trial launches a gruelling judicial ordeal for Judge Garzon, who enjoys superstar status among rights groups for championing cross-border justice but has many political enemies at home. Next week he faces another, bigger trial for probing right-wing atrocities during the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war. The crimes were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain moved to restore democracy after decades of dictatorship under General Franco, whose side won the war. Franco died in 1975. That trial is expected to take a month or more.

Some 50 supporters cheered outside as Judge Garzon arrived at the ornate 18th-century palace that houses the Supreme Court. As he stood outside the chamber before the trial began, colleagues of his from the National Court - from which he was suspended in 2010, over the civil war case - hugged him, patted him on the back and kissed him on the cheek.

Later, as a seven-judge panel heard a clerk read out the charge and the background of the case, he sat quietly with his lawyer, reading papers and taking notes.

The corruption case centres on a network of business people who are accused of paying off members of the conservative Popular Party - now in power in the central government - in exchange for lucrative government contracts in the Madrid and Valencia regions.

Spanish law allows the bugging of jailhouse conversations between terrorism suspects and their lawyers. But it is vague on non-terror cases, saying jailhouse wiretaps can be ordered by a judge if he or she believes the conversations will yield evidence germane to an investigation.

Judge Garzon has argued that he ordered the wiretaps in 2008 because he thought people visiting the three suspects were acting as couriers to receive money-laundering instructions.

Lawyers for those three detainees argue that, since the law does not specifically allow for bugging of conversations between detainees and their lawyers in non-terror cases, he acted illegally.

The case has been brought because of a complaint by those lawyers, even though prosecutors say Judge Garzon did nothing wrong and should be acquitted. This is a quirk of Spanish penal law - private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.

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