Argentina’s Exercise of Universal Jurisdiction Thwarted by Spain

An Argentine court has invoked universal jurisdiction over a case brought by relatives of people who were victims of torture and other crimes committed in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1933-1939) and the Franco regime (1939-1975).[1]

In September 2013 the Argentine court issued an international warrant for the arrest of four suspects in that case. Two of them are residents of Spain; the other two are deceased.[2]

Spain’s High Court’s Denial of Extradition

One of these suspects who lives in Spain, Jesús Muñecas, earlier this month appeared in Spain’s High Court to contest the Argentine court’s request to have him extradited to Argentina to face charges that while a Spanish Civil Guard captain in August 1968, he tortured and beat an individual at a Spanish prison. Muñecas’ opposition to extradition was supported by the Spanish prosecutor on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired on these charges.

On or about April 25th Spain’s High Court denied the extradition request. It said the Argentine charges did not reveal any facts that could be construed as genocide – a crime without a statute of limitations – and that even if torture were proven, Spain’s 10-year statute of limitations for torture had expired and, therefore, barred the case.

Spain’s High Court’s Invitation to Argentina To Start a Case in Spain

 In denying extradition of Senor Muñecas, the High Court added that Argentina could try to get the case opened in Spain. According to the High Court, “This would give the victims the possibility to access proceedings and, in some way, satisfy their desire for justice.”

This invitation is utterly disingenuous and ironical as shown below.

Baltasar Garzón
Baltasar Garzón

Previously Spain’s High Court had opened a criminal investigation of certain crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War and Franco regime, but the investigation was quashed in May 2010. Simultaneously the judge who initiated that investigation, former High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón, was charged with a crime for doing so and suspended from his judicial service.

In February 2012, this criminal case against Garzón was dismissed when Spain’s Supreme Court decided that he had not abused his judicial power in initiating the investigation even though, according to the Court, he had overstepped his authority and “exceeded himself in the interpretation of the law” in doing so.

In the meantime, however, two other criminal cases were brought against Garzón.

One of these prosecutions resulted in his February 2012 conviction for prevarication (knowingly making an unjust decision) in a case involving his authorization of police bugging of communications between individuals charged with corruption and their attorneys. For this conviction, Judge Garzón was removed from the bench for 11 years and fined Euros 2,500.[3]

These three criminal cases against Garzón and his conviction in one of them have been widely condemned as motivated by the Spanish government’s desire to punish him for his Franco-era investigation as discussed in posts of February 10, 11 and 14, 2012.

One of the criticisms of his conviction came from the European Magistrates for Democracy and Freedom (EMDF), an organization with 15,000 members from 11 states of the European Union. They petitioned the Spanish courts for a pardon of Garzón because the organization believes his conviction and sentence affects the entire international judicial community and runs the risk of limiting judicial independence, especially in countries trying to construct a democratic system of justice. Judges must have the freedom to render their own legal interpretations, said this organization, and the Garzón case could be used to curb judges’ independence and autonomy.

In late February 2014, Spain’s Supreme Court opposed the EMDF’s petition for such a pardon on the ground that it did not satisfy certain legal criteria. The court also said it was inappropriate to reinstate Garzón as he maintains that he was within his rights to order the recordings of the attorney-client communications. Said the court, “In the request there is no indication that he has expressed remorse, and this court is not aware of his having done so.” Moreover, according to the court, Garzón had displayed “indifference” to his suspension “as a way of reaffirming his position prior to the sentence.”

Now Spain’s Ministry of Justice will make the final decision on the request for pardon. As of April 27th, the prosecution apparently had advised the Ministry that there were no reasons of justice, fairness or public interest to grant such a pardon.

Meanwhile in reaction to the Supreme Court decision opposing his pardon, Garzón said it was “not legal” for the Court to demand he show remorse. “This is not a legal requisite,” he said. Nor, he added, does the fact that it was EMDF that had requested the pardon reflect his “indifference.” Garzón reasserted his innocence and said, “I believe that this offense was created with the express purpose of punishing me, and that I am within my rights to disagree and to resort to another court, as I have done in Strasbourg [the European Court of Human Rights], in order to evaluate whether the Supreme Court has violated my fundamental rights.”[4]

Finally Spain High Court’s invitation for Argentina to start a case in Spain is ironic. Argentina decided to exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes committed during Spain’s Civil War and the Franco regime only after Spain quashed its own investigation of such crimes, the one initiated by Garzón. 

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[1]This post’s discussion of the Argentine proceedings is based upon Fabra, Ex-Civil Guard officer fights extradition to Argentina to face torture charges, El Pais (In English) (April 3, 2014); Fabra, High Court refuses to extradite former Franco-era Civil Guard accused of torture, El Pais (In English) (April 25, 2014).

[2] The other living suspect and Spanish resident, Juan Antonio González Pacheco, alias Billy the Kid, also is opposing his extradition to Argentina. He is a former police inspector who faces 13 charges of torture.

[3] The other criminal case against Judge Garzón involving alleged corruption was dismissed as being barred by the statute of limitations.

[4] In March 2011 Garzon brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights challenging the legality of his criminal prosecution, conviction and sentence on his approving the prosecution’s bugging of communications between certain criminal defendants and their lawyers. This case apparently is still pending.

European Judicial Group Calls for Pardon of Garzon

Baltasar Garzon

A prior post discussed former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon’s conviction and suspension for bugging of attorney-client communications. Immediate reactions to this result were discussed in posts on  February 10, 11 and 14.

More recently the European Magistrates for Democracy and Freedom called for a pardon of Baltasar Garzon because the organization believes his conviction and sentence affects the entire international judicial community and runs the risk of limiting judicial independence, especially in countries trying to construct a democratic system of justice. Judges must have the freedom to render their own legal interpretations, but the Garzon case could be used to curb judges’ independence and autonomy.

This European organization has 15,000 members from associations of judges and prosecutors from 11 states of the European Union.

A New Book About the Crimes of the Franco Regime

A prior post looked at former Judge Baltasar Garzon’s call for a Spanish Truth Commission to investigate and report on the crimes of the Franco regime during the period 1936-1951.

Paul Preston

Now a new book paints a comprehensive picture of the crimes of that era: The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. The product of  meticulous scholarship and research, it lays out in gruesome detail how and why Generalisimo Franco and his supporters killed 200,000 civilians during the war for not being supporters of fascism and an additional 20,000 supporters of the Republic after the war.

The author of this book is Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who is usually regarded as the world’s foremost historian of 20th-century Spain.

The New York Times review called the book a “magisterial account of the bloodshed of that era” that evoked the worst of medieval times. Examples were Franco’s “parading soldiers who flourished enemy ears and noses on their bayonets, the mass public executions carried out in bullrings or with band music and onlookers dancing in the victims’ blood.”

Garzón Calls for Spanish Truth Commission Regarding Franco Regime’s Crimes

Baltasar Garzón

On March 30th former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón wrote a passionate article in El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, that called for Spain to create a truth commission to investigate and report on the crimes of the Franco regime during the period 1936-1951.

Such a commission, he said, should be independent and inclusive. It should obtain the testimonies of victims and perpetrators and of experts. Its ultimate report should set forth its factual findings of the historical truth plus the individual and collective reparations owed to the victims.

Moreover, the Spanish Supreme Court judgment that absolved him of any crime in his authorization of a judicial investigation of this subject, Garzón said, acknowledged that the victims of the Franco regime crimes had legitimate aspirations to know what happened, how and why. Now a truth commission would be able to respond to those legitimate aspirations.

According to Garzón, there “are more than 100,000 people missing in the Spanish fields, whose remains remember the dignity of those who demand justice against the indignity of those who took justice away– and the silence of those who allowed it to happen–and thereby assumed the international embarrassment of forgetting and silence.”

Dismissal of Spanish Criminal Case Against Judge Baltasar Garzón Over Franco-Era Investigation

Spanish Flag

On February 27th, the Spanish Supreme Court, 6 to 1, dismissed the criminal case against Judge Baltasar Garzón over his investigation of human rights violations by the Franco regime. A prior post reviewed this criminal case while posts on February 14th and 21st  explored reactions to the case. This case will investigate the recent dismissal and the immediate reactions to that decision.

The Dismissal Decision Itself

The Supreme Court aquitted Garzón of the crime of trespass (knowingly making an unjust resolution) for trying to open an investigation into the crimes of Francoism.

According to the Court, Garzón overstepped his authority and “exceeded himself in the interpretation of the law” by investigating the Franco-era disappearances, but his actions did not constitute an abuse of power.

The Court said a search for truth regarding Civil War atrocities is necessary and legitimate, but that such a search should be conducted by other state institutions, not by an investigative judge. In short, historians have a role as do judges, but they must not be mixed.The court also acknowledged that Mr. Garzón attempted “to improve the situation” of Civil War victims who “have the right to know the facts and recover their dead” relatives.

Spain’s amnesty law, the Court concluded, was enacted with the full consensus of political forces in 1977 and was not a law “approved by the victors, those in power to cover up their crimes.” It was an instrument of reconciliation, not a law of amnesty like those enacted by some of the South American dictatorships. As a result, the Spanish amnesty law is valid and can only be repealed by Parliament, not by judges.

One of the Supreme Court judges, Judge Sánchez Melgar, filed a concurring opinion. He agreed that the charges should be dismissed, but on the ground that Garzón lacked the necessary intent to abuse the judicial function.

The sole dissentingjudge, Judge Jose Manuel Maza, stated that Garzón should have been convicted of willful trespass for instigating a procedure to serve the subjective intentions of the complainants against people already dead and for crimes that had been amnestied or at least, were clearly prescribed by the statute of limitations. The good intentions of Garzón were irrelevant, the dissenter stated.

The full text of the decision (en espanol) is available online.

Reactions to the Dismissal Decision

Human rights organizations although pleased with the dismissal had negative comments about the entire criminal cases against Judge Garzón.

Human Rights Watch said, “The real losers are the reputation of the Spanish judiciary and those — in Spain, in detention at Guantánamo or in countries around the world where there is no justice — who knew they could count on at least one independent judge to apply human rights laws without fear of the political consequences.” This organization also called for Spain to “repeal the 1977 amnesty law” and  “assist the families of Franco’s victims in their long quest for truth and justice.”

Amnesty International urged the Spanish authorities to “do justice” in Spain and investigate the crimes of the Civil War and Francoism. AI added, “There should be no impunity in Spain for such heinous crimes.”

Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory urged its Supreme Court to “act urgently, and rule on how these atrocities [of the Franco era] are to be legally pursued.”

Spain’s Justice Minister, on the other hand, said that Spain had “a strong and independent judiciary” and that “[n]one of the [unjustified] criticism against the Supreme Court . . . has made it lose its prestige in the eyes of Spanish citizens.” The decision, not surprisingly, was also defended by Spain’s Supreme Judicial Council.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial opined that the decision was “a troubling blow to the 1977 amnesty covering the bloody misdeeds of Spain’s authoritarian period—the deliberate “forgetting” of the past to which contemporary Spain owes so much.The purpose of [Spain’s] amnesty is not to dishonor the victims of atrocities or to vindicate the perpetrators. It is to ensure that the sins of the guilty do not engender new strife among the innocents, and that those sins are not exploited for political gain. It was never the place of a crusading judge to substitute his politics for the will of a country seeking to move forward.”

Conclusion

As a U.S. lawyer, I reiterate my plea for comments by those more knowledgeable about Spanish law and procedure to clarify or correct my accounts of this and the other two  cases against Judge Garzón.

Update on Reactions to Spain’s Criminal Cases Against Judge Garzón

The three Spanish criminal cases against Judge Baltasar Garzón to make news.

On February 20th the Standing Committee of Spain’s Supreme Judicial Council, the governing body of judges in Spain, agreed to enforce the 11-year disqualification of Judge Baltasar Garzón. This coming Thursday the full governing body of the Council will have to confirm the removal of Garzón.

Also on February 20th, 80 human rights organizations from 32 countries, including Spain, delivered a joint letter to Spanish embassies around the world that said they considered “the temporal coincidence of these three different trials, as well as the origin of the complaints, are evidence of judicial harassment aimed against Judge Garzón. The sentence recently imposed upon him, and the other ongoing proceedings negatively affect the credibility of the Spanish judiciary, which once deserved the recognition of broad sectors of the international community for its rigor and commitment to universal jurisdiction causes and to combat organised [sic] crime. This commitment has symbolised [sic] in Garzón’s work, and for which he has risked his life.”

This letter added, “it is unacceptable and regrettable that in a democracy such as the Spanish one, the independence of justice could be weakened in such a manner, criminalizing a judge who used his independence, among others, to implement the International Law of Human Rights in its courts decisions.”

Earlier (February 8th) the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers joined the the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in a joint statement. It said it was “regrettable that Judge Garzón could be punished for opening an investigation which is in line with Spain’s obligations to investigate human rights violations in accordance with international law principles.” The statement went on to say that “Supposed errors in judicial decisions should not be a reason for the removal of a judge and, even less, for a criminal proceeding to be launched” and that “autonomy in the interpretation of the law is a fundamental element in the role of a judge and for progress in human rights.”

Meanwhile in Spain a commentator in El Pais stated that there has been a “chorus of brutal insults . . . raining down on . . . [Garzón] in the right-wing media” and that “chorus has now culminated with a war dance to celebrate his conviction.”

 

 

 

 

 

Commentary on the Spanish Criminal Cases Against Judge Garzon

Judge Baltasar Garzon

A prior post summarized the three pending criminal cases against Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon.

This month has seen significant developments in these cases. On February 8th, the trial of the Franco-era case ended with Judge Garzon telling the court that he was motivated by “the helplessness of the victims.” The decision in that case is still to come. On February 9th, Judge Garzon was convicted of the charges involving his approval of wire-tapping attorney-client communications. On February 13th the court dismissed the case about the Judge’s alleged bribery by Banco Santander.

Now I have further commentary about these cases.

Reaction to the Criminal Charges Arising Out of the Franco-Era Investigation

The case that has drawn the most attention is the one with respect to Judge Garzon’s investigation of Franco-era human rights violations.

This case against the Judge has been severely criticized by the major Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which proclaimed that the case was reckless for “being charged . . . with apology for and defense of a dictatorial regime of cursed memory for many Spanish people. it also has a tone of provocation and insolence, which is hard to accept in democratic Spain. . . . The overtly fascist ideological tone of the legal action has contaminated the proceedings from the start, and is causing serious damage to the international image of Spain.”

Madrid demonstration for Garzon
Madrid demonstration for Garzon

Spanish citizens supporting the Judge have demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court building with signs saying “Stop the Persecution of Judge Garzon.” This obviously is only one segment of Spanish society which still has deep-seated divisions over its Civil War of the 1930’s.

Similar criticism has been leveled by international human rights organizations and leading newspapers. Amnesty International said this case was “a threat to human rights and judicial independence.” Human Rights Watch had similar harsh words: the case “threatens the concept of accountability in Spain and elsewhere.” The International Commission of Jurists said this case was “an attack against one of the pillars of the rule of law.” An author in Dissent said the main purpose for these charges was to “silence . . . those who’ve dared give voice to memories of political abuse and those who might pursue universal jurisdiction.” In the U.S. a New York Times editorial observed that this case was “a disturbing echo of the Franco era’s totalitarian thinking.”

Moreover, these charges against Garzon have spawned at least two collateral proceedings.

In March 2011 a British human rights organization, Interights, filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights asserting that under international law there could be no valid amnesties or statutes of limitations for crimes against humanity, that Judge

Garzon could not validly be punished for his reasoned interpretation of law and that the charges against Judge Garzon were threats to judicial independence. The European Court, however, is unlikely to take any action on this complaint for many months.

The prior year, May 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and nine other human rights organizations filed a complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers (and five other U.N. special rapporteurs and working groups) alleging that these criminal charges against Judge Garzon were an improper interference with the Spanish judiciary. I have not been able to find any action or report about what these U.N. entities have done, if anything, with respect to this complaint.

It should be noted that this May 2010 complaint to U.N. entities was submitted before the WikiLeaks disclosure of the U.S. diplomatic cables about U.S. efforts to stop Spanish criminal cases against U.S.officials, and there was no allegation in this May 2010 complaint that the U.S. or Spanish officials improperly caused the criminal charges against Judge Garzon to be made.

As reported in prior post, on January 19, 2012, two of these same human rights organizations–the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City and Berlin’s European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights–alleged that U.S. and Spanish senior governmental officials improperly had attempted to interfere with the Spanish judges handling three criminal cases against U.S. officials. The asserted bases for the allegations were U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks; these cables are now available on the web. The allegations themselves were set forth in a complaint the organizations filed with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. However, this recent complaint to the Special Rapporteur does not allege that the U.S. or Spain or both improperly had instigated the criminal charges against Judge Garzon. Perhaps the unstated hope of this complaint is that the Rapporteur would uncover evidence of such an improper attempt.

The absence of such a direct accusation in the recent complaint to the Rapporteur is significant, in my opinion, because simultaneously with filing of that complaint, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights along with seven other human rights organizations released a joint statement supporting Judge Garzon on his investigation of crimes related to the alleged crimes of the Franco regime. The statement asserts that application of international law to such crimes as was done by Judge Garzon does not constitute judicial malfeasance under Spanish law. Indeed, the joint statement elucidates the international law against the validity of amnesties for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But the joint statement did not allege that this criminal case against the Judge was the result of improper actions of U.S. or Spanish officials.

Reaction to the Other Two Criminal Cases Against Judge Garzon

There has been considerable commentary about the Judge’s conviction in the tapping of attorney-client communications that has been discussed in posts on February 10th and February 11th.

The El Pais editorial about the conviction should also be mentioned. It said that the Supreme Court’s rationale was  “hair-brained, absurd and even offensive.” This rationale asserted that Judge Garzon sought to weaken the suspects’ “defense strategies” to such a degree as to place “the Spanish penal system on the same level as that of totalitarian regimes.” That absurdity of this rationale was shown by the facts that the wire taps were sought by the Office of the Public Prosecutor, were maintained by another judge who replaced Judge Garzon in the corruption investigation and were initially approved by the Madrid High Court. Absurd though it was, the rationale served the Supreme Court’s “objective: eliminating Garzón as a judge.”

The dismissal of the third case involving alleged bribery of Judge Garzon makes it unnecessary to make further comment on that case.

Conclusion

The criminal cases against Judge Garzon are very important. First, they are obviously important for the Judge personally. Second, they are important, in my opinion, for the independence of Spanish judges from internal (or external) political opposition to judicial decisions. Third, they are important around the globe for judicial enforcement of international human rights.