The Rise and Fall of Spanish “Super-Judge” Baltasar Garzón

Baltasar Garzón, a high-profile Spanish judge and leftwing champion of the legal doctrine of universal jurisdiction, has been charged with abuse of power. Spanish Supreme Court investigating magistrate Luciano Varela charged Garzón with knowingly overstepping his jurisdiction by launching an illegal investigation into political crimes committed during and after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.


The indictment of Garzón has implications that reach far beyond Spain. A guilty verdict would effectively terminate Garzón’s career as a judge, and thereby deprive the global Left of one of its most ambitious legal activists. It would also mark the beginning of the end of Spain’s foray into cross-border jurisprudence, which has been branded as politically motivated harassment of select right-leaning foreign governments, including in Israel and the United States.

The current dustup began in October 2008, when Garzón accused General Francisco Franco and 34 of his former generals and ministers of crimes against humanity in connection with mass executions and tens of thousands of disappearances of civilians between 1936 and 1952. Garzón also ordered the exhumation of 19 mass graves.

Considering that the Spanish Civil War ended more than 70 years ago, and that Franco died in 1975, few suspects, even if identified, would be alive today to stand trial. But the main objection to Garzón’s probe has stemmed from the fact that he decided to limit his investigation only to crimes committed by the right-wing Nationalists (ie, the Francoists). His enquiry did not extend to political crimes committed by the left-wing Republicans (anti-Francoists), which included Marxists, liberals and anarchists. Republican death squads murdered up to 70,000 clergy, nuns and ordinary middle class Spaniards in a veritable reign of terror that largely contributed to the rise of Franco.

Garzón’s supporters say Spain needs an honest accounting of its troubled past and they view his probe as seeking a long-overdue indictment, even if only a symbolic one, of the Franco regime. But the one-sided nature of Garzón’s probe has sparked outrage among Spanish conservatives. They accuse the judge (who in 1993 took a leave of absence to run for a seat in Spanish parliament as a member of the Socialist party, but returned to the bench in anger only a year later after he was passed over for Justice Minister) of political grandstanding and pursuing a personal vendetta against them.

After a number of conservative groups filed complaints against Garzón for not applying the law equally, the Supreme Court appointed Varela to examine the case. In a 14-page ruling, Varela concluded that Garzón had manipulated the course of justice by knowingly violating a 1977 amnesty law that shields all sides, including members of the Franco dictatorship, from legal persecution. Moreover, a 2007 Law of Historical Memory, explicitly gave the lower courts (not Garzón’s high court) jurisdiction over locating and digging up the mass graves that still dot the Spanish countryside.

Varela charged that Garzón, in order to get around these restrictions, tried create law rather than administer it. “Aware of his lack of jurisdiction and that the crimes reported lacked penal relevance when the proceedings began, [Garzón] built a contrived argument to justify his control of the proceedings he initiated,” Varela wrote in his ruling.

Garzón denies any wrongdoing and has defended his probe as legitimate. But even some of his admirers say vanity is the natural weakness of an ambitious man. Indeed, some observers believe that Garzón has come to view himself as an “exceptional” judge, not bound to the laws and Constitution of Spain, as are other judges. As a result, they say, he is increasingly prone to overreaching his authority.

In a separate case, for example, Garzón is being investigated for asking Emilio Botín, the chairman of Spain’s largest bank, for a $300,000 grant to pay for a course at New York University in which the judge participated. At the time, Botín was due to stand trial in Garzón’s own court on charges of financial misappropriation. After receiving the grant money, the charges against Botín were dropped.

In another case, the Spanish Justice Minister was forced to resign after going on a hunting trip with Garzón, who was investigating corruption in the opposition Popular Party. PP leader Mariano Rajoy accused the two men of leaking information to the press in a bid to influence regional elections, and called on Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to explain the relations between his government and the judicial authorities.

Garzón jumped to international fame as a leading proponent of Spain’s doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which holds that crimes like torture or terrorism can be tried in Spain even if they are alleged to have been committed elsewhere and had no link to Spain.

In 1998, Garzón had former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested during a visit to London, although Britain ultimately refused to extradite him to Madrid for trial. Since then, Garzón has used the principle of universal jurisdiction to go after current or former government officials such as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and around 100 leaders of the 1976-1983 military junta in Argentina. At one point, Garzón and his colleagues were pursuing more than a dozen international investigations into suspected cases of torture, genocide and crimes against humanity in places as far-flung as Tibet and Rwanda. But many of these cases have had little or no connection with Spain and critics say the judges have been interpreting the concept of universal jurisdiction too loosely.

Calls to reign in the judges increased when Spanish magistrates announced probes involving Israel and the United States. In January 2009, Spanish National Court Judge Fernando Andreu said he would investigate seven current or former Israeli officials over a 2002 air attack in Gaza. In March, Garzón said he would investigate six former Bush administration officials for giving legal cover to torture at the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And in May, another Spanish high-court judge, Santiago Pedraz, said he would charge three US soldiers with crimes against humanity for the April 2003 deaths of a Spanish television cameraman and a Ukrainian journalist. The men were killed when a US tank crew shelled their Baghdad hotel.

In any case, Garzón and his colleagues have been highly selective about the cases they take. For example, they have never tried to prosecute any Palestinian terrorists for war crimes. Nor have they had much zeal for investigating crimes against humanity in Chechnya or Darfur. Nor have they prosecuted any of the suspected Nazi war criminals who sought refuge in Spain after the end of World War II.

In 2009, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido asked Garzón to shelve his case against the Americans and warned of the risks of turning the Spanish justice system into a “plaything” for politically motivated prosecutions. Instead of heeding that advice, Garzón opened yet another investigation that seeks information on everyone who authorized and carried out the alleged torture of four inmates at Guantánamo Bay.

Concerned that Spain’s judicial system was being hijacked by left-wing groups out to pursue political vendettas (and that Spain’s media savvy judges were more interested in scoring political points than in upholding the law), the Spanish parliament in 2009 passed a bill to narrow the scope of the universal jurisdiction law to cases in which the victims of a crime include Spaniards or the alleged perpetrators were in Spain.

Regardless of whether Garzón is ultimately absolved of misconduct, the case against him has badly damaged his reputation and authority. It has also cast a dark shadow over the entire Spanish justice system. The silver lining is that from now on Garzón and his colleagues may think twice before pursuing politically motivated cases, especially outside of Spain.

Henry Kissinger once warned that “universal jurisdiction risks creating universal tyranny — that of judges.” The irony in Spain is that the judges, led by Garzón, have been responsible for their own undoing.


Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group

Memory 5

Kappert’s discussion of the Amnesty Law fits in with my critique of both the Spanish right and left.  Kern as well as commentators on this article, although correctly condemning Garzón’s judicial activism, fail to note two crucial facts:


1.  The victims of Francoism outnumber those of the Red Terror three to five-fold, and Francoist atrocities continued well after the Civil War.


2.   Garzón’s activism was only checked because it came up against the Amnesty Law. 


Clearly, the Spanish right is in crisis, as evidenced by the PP’s 2008 Convention.  To his credit Garzón did take on death squads irrespective of ideology, but he is now a loose cannon.  Unfortunately, he is not being held to account because of his insistence on “universal jurisdiction”, which has damaged Spain’s foreign relations with Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries.  Rather, it is due to his inquiry into Francoist crimes.  Clearly, the Spanish right is in crisis (evidenced by the PP’s 2008 Convention), and needs to re-direct its remaining clout to the future and defeating the PSOE, rather than protecting the immunity of right-wing criminals…

Memory # 4

@ KO

It is best to identify the source of 'your' quote, so as to ensure that readers understand what we are dealing with here and to prevent them from mistakenly attributing such nonsense to the author of this valuable article, Mr Kern.

As to prosecuting Castro?  That will be done by the Cuban people, long after he is gone and they will have regained their freedom.  It should certainly NOT be done by champions of absurd "universal jurisdiction". In any case, the latter are fundamentalists of the 'leftist religion', which means that they hold their beliefs with absolute certainty and that they do not allow any contrary evidence (like Castro's regime) to interfere with their 'certainties'.


I understand you are against the International Court and against judging anyone in a country which is not 'yours'.

Historical Memory 3

Kappert: "Naturally such 'outrageous arrogance' does not fit in the constitutions and auto-understanding of so many countries, vulgar 'sovereignty of nations', independently being democratic or not."

What does it fit into, appointing oneself God's avenger?  I don't see how the effort of a people to recover the truth of their history supports their judges' meddling in the criminal law of other peoples, unless you are saying that their extraordinary virtue in one sphere permits them to take extraordinary actions in another sphere.  Maybe they should prosecute Castro before it's too late.


Garzon, what a pity that there is no inquisition around when needed. Spain needs another Franco anyway, the left over there became too arrogant and too influential.  

Historical Memory (2)

Oh Kappert, really. Why on earth should anybody be expected to take your partisan opinions and observations seriously when they know that, had you been alive when the Spanish Civil War was raging, for example, you would have been in favour of letting Franco march on Madrid without firing a single shot in anger. Moreover, you would most likely have characterised the International Brigade as nothing more than a bunch of blood thirsty mercenaries, while  no doubt suggesting that the best course of action for the anti-Franco factions would be to take to their heels and head for the Pyrenees. Am I wrong?

That's not the question

Would I? I don't know. But the question is whether the Spanish public wants to clear its own history. So far, the amnesty law of 1977 prohibits such effort.

To be, or not to be...

Well, would you? Only you know the answer to that question and you have never doubted yourself before. Or are you now finally admitting that perhaps pacifism isn't necessarily the default position you would take, or recommend that others should take, in every conceivable circumstance?

Historical Memory

For a journalist in Spain, Soeren Kern tells us astonishingly little about the Spanish Civil War, the Franco and post-Franco era. Unlike post-fascism times in Germany, Italy, Portugal or Greece, the Spanish public never resolved crimes during the fascist Franco regime. On contrary, Franco himself proclaimed (King) Juan Carlos as his successor, former Franco ministers kept their office and their influence, later former Falange members achieved high positions in the Spanish democracy. The mass executions and tens of thousands of disappearances of civilians between 1936 and 1952 were never investigated, due to a 1977 amnesty law that shields the criminals from legal persecution. Still there are countless references as streets and places in the name of fascists, the vale de los caídos is a popular meeting place for the right-wingers. It is remarkable that super-judge Garzón is attacked when it comes to domestic crimes, which in fact was only possible with the work of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica), a group of about 50 Spanish archaeologists, anthropologists and forensics scientists. The group tried to identify the places of execution through records and interviewing the locals. Only with their achievements, judge Garzón could act. Before that, he was applauded for his effort to fight left-wing separatist group ETA, to bring Chilean Dictator Pinochet on trial (the UK protected Pinochet on health grounds) and contributed to the recognition that locally protected statesmen and criminals may encounter themselves in a tribunal. Naturally such 'outrageous arrogance' does not fit in the constitutions and auto-understanding of so many countries, vulgar 'sovereignty of nations', independently being democratic or not. So it is very hard to investigate Operation Condor, Gaza bombings or Guantanamo torture. 

Cherry Picking on All Sides

It is intriguing that this reversal of fortune was precipitated not by attempts to interfere in foreign jurisdictions, but by investigating the Civil War.  Evidently, the Supreme Court regards Franco's memory as more important than relations with Israel and the United States, just as these "exceptional judges" ignore left-wing crimes.  Spain still has a long way to go in finding a place in the post-Cold War era.

Garzon, Wrath of God

Thanks for the good news. It is outrageous that the Spanish government -- through its judiciary -- has appointed itself to prosecute non-Spaniards for alleged crimes committed against non-Spaniards on non-Spanish soil. That violates the sovereignty of the nations where the alleged crimes were committed, and the sovereignty of the nations that have a legitimate interest in enforcing criminal law to protect their own citizens. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, the leftist clowns will lose power in Spain and will no longer be in a position to make their great country a laughingstock.