Baltasar Garzon

Judge Baltasar Garzón has made an illustrious career taking on powerful enemies, specializing in cases against government corruption, organized crime, terrorists, state antiterrorism units, and drug lords. In 1973 Augusto Pinochet led a bloody military coup against democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende of Chile. Pinochet’s seventeen-year reign of terror was characterized by human rights violations on a truly massive scale, including widespread disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In October 1998, Garzón made history when he seized the opportunity to indict Pinochet in Europe, when the general visited London. Garzón carefully and boldly pursued the general legally, despite furious pressures both abroad and at home. While Pinochet was eventually released to Chile because of failing health, following the decision of U.K. Home Secretary, Jack Straw, Garzón’s campaign for justice had set a precedent that heads of state may now be tried for crimes such as torture and genocide, that no person is above the law, and that sovereign immunity does not extend to crimes against humanity. Other countries quickly followed Garzón’s lead. Dictators across the globe have canceled trips abroad for fear of the long arm of justice. Garzón’s work has given hope to thousands of victims of Pinochet’s regime, and of the military juntas in Argentina (1976–1983), and, indeed, to all others who suffered at the hands of dictators around the world. Most importantly, it reminds us that when a government persecutes its own people, that betrayal is of universal concern. In July 2009, Judge Garzon organized the International Jurisdiction Summer School at El Escorial (Madrid) where he simultaneously helped to bring a production of the Speak Truth to Power play starring prominent Spanish actors and U.S. actor Martin Sheen to Spain. Today, Judge Garzon continues his work in the face of great adversity, including being targeted for criminal prosecution himself in 2010, due to his work in investigating crimes related to the Franco regime.

The combination of the responsibility I was taught in the seminary, which was a responsibility learned through discipline, and the work I was taught at home, through freedom, was a wonderful combination. My family is Catholic, and they thought I was too naughty to be a priest. But I was stubborn and went to the seminary anyway from eleven to seventeen. I wanted to be a missionary, and to work for social justice, for the benefit of other people, but after a time, I realized that I might not be able to cope with all the restrictions of being a priest. So I opted to study law instead. Although my family was a well-to-do middle-class family and I didn’t have to work to study, I thought I should work as well so that all my brothers and sisters could study, too.

So I worked in construction, waited tables, and pumped gas. My father was diabetic and also worked at the gas station. I would work nights so he could go home—he had already had one diabetic attack. I studied at night and in the morning I would go to the law university, and in the afternoon I would sleep a bit. Of course, working was also for me a way for seeing my girlfriend. (The girlfriend I had at that time is the woman I’m married to now.) I wasn’t sleeping much.

Actually I do not sleep much now either (three hours a day), so I have time to do more things.

To become a judge in Spain, you have to study five years of law. And then you have to take a special examination, where you’re tested on 438 topics, followed by judge’s school. On December 1, 1980, just after my twenty-fourth birthday, I became a judge. I’ve been in the national court for twelve years now. I deal with organized crime, terrorism, drug trafficking, extraditions, counterfeiting, corruption, crimes committed outside Spain, but where the Spanish are competent to try them—such as genocide and torture, as in the cases of Argentina and Chile andcrimes committed against international organisms and national organisms such as the king or the government. I was also a politician for a year, in 1993, and I served as a head of The National Program Against Illicit Drug Trade.

My work is dangerous mostly in matters of terrorism, and also counterterrorism, meaning state terrorism, or death squads, against organized terrorism. I’ve had to order the vice minister of the Interior taken into custody, along with the heads of the antiterrorist police. I’ve also prosecuted cases against the leaders of the antidrug police, of the civil police, because there were many cases of bribery. My work regarding Spanish problems is mostly dedicated to cases of terrorism, political terrorism, pro-independence terrorist acts, Islamic terrorism. But mostly, ETA terrorism, which is the Basque organization from northern Spain.

I have received many death threats, but you get used to it. Threats have never changed my mind. Threats mainly come when I investigate cases of drug trafficking, from Colombia or Turkey, with heroin. One time when I felt a great deal of pressure was when I opened up the cases of counterterrorism, death squads. People broke into my house and left a banana peel on top of my bed. At the time, accusations appeared charging me with misuse of government funds. They had all these receipts, some real, others bogus. Luckily I was able to prove the accusations were false. (Ever since then I keep meticulous records of every single thing I purchase.) But such accusations continued until I went to the Attorney General and asked that he investigate me, so everything would be clear. That’s when the banana appeared. The banana peel was a sign to me that they could do whatever they wanted with my family; a Mafia-style warning. If they had access to the most intimate room in my home, my bedroom, that meant they could go anywhere undetected. On that Saturday, our family was out of the house, but our home is under surveillance by television cameras and a policeman twenty-four hours a day. A week later, a journalist phoned me. Since nothing had happened, nor had I said anything, or denounced anything, somebody had phoned this journalist and told the journalist the story that somebody broke into our home and left a banana peel on the bed. So the journalist phones me and says, “Did you see a banana peel on top of your bed a week ago?” I answered, “No, what are you talking about? I haven’t seen anything.” That evening, while having dinner with my wife and kids, I said to my wife, “It’s such nonsense, this journalist pretends a week ago there was a banana peel on our bed.” And my wife became pale. I said, “What’s wrong, aren’t you feeling well?” And she said that on that same Saturday, when she and her sister came back from shopping, they found this banana peel on the bed. But they didn’t give any importance to it, because they thought one of the kids had left it. They threw it in the garbage and thought that was it. So we realized it was true, that they had broken in, they had broken the key lock of the house, the cameras were broken, they were not working, and yes, we were frightened.

Despite the pressures, it is very clear to me that I have a job to do. The rest is peripheral. I can’t allow these things to change my life. I am voluntarily where I am. These problems are included in the job description. I’m not cavalier. I take precautions. I’m aware there’s a risk. I do my best to stay at home as much as possible. I don’t go to public places very often. When I go with one of my kids to the cinema, I never follow the same route. So I have measures that are almost ingrained after twelve years and I do my best so that this does not affect me. I’m lucky because my wife has always supported me. And even when I have had doubts about myself, it has been my wife who has stopped me and said, “You can’t have doubts about anything, you can’t be weak, you must go on.” We have both talked a lot to the kids about this commitment that we feel, that our life is this way, and that there are risks, but we have to take them. When I abandoned politics as an independent deputy, to return to being a judge, my eldest daughter came and embraced me, saying, “Daddy, I support you and I like you more as a judge.” One of the things we’ve made clear to our children—as I was taught as a kid in my family—is that this is a job, that somebody has to do this job, and that I have decided to take this job with total freedom and absolute responsibility. I explain that I could earn much more somewhere else, but money isn’t everything. This job is something that society needs, and I have to do it. For me, social commitment is very important, almost vital.

All my education stressed that in good times or in bad times you always have to face problems, not run away from them. Sometimes you can be wrong, you can make mistakes. But I accept the responsibilities of my actions. Because what you cannot do is what many people do, you cannot pretend that these problems are not your problems. I believe that a judge must live in society, must deal with the problems in society, and must deal directly with the problems of society, must face them. We have good, strong laws both domestic and international. Yet nobody seems to apply them. They say, “Well, this is something that is maybe different from what I’m used to.” The world’s problems seem to be only problems that you watch on TV, then you keep on having dinner, and then you go to sleep. This does not mean that I feel I am Mother Teresa—I wish I were! But it does mean that if a case comes to me, I must apply all the laws and extend the application of law to benefit the case. We cannot say that, “I only take account of what happens in my country, and what happens beyond the borders does not affect me.” That would be a nineteenth-century approach. The key issue is that the victims, those massacred as a result of those crimes against humanity, need protection.

Argentina and Chile are situations where international laws that have been ratified by Spain are being applied. These are cases like those of Guatemala, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, where the fact that those crimes happened inside those countries does not mean they can only be judged inside those countries. Mass violation of international human rights must be universally persecuted. International human rights have universal jurisdiction. The issue is whether you want to apply international law or not—you can either apply the law or shy away from it.

It has always amazed me that politicians keep writing international conventions. But then when the time comes to apply one of those laws that have been ratified, they say “the problem is, economic stability, or political stability, could be threatened by the application of this rule.” So what’s the point? Do we ratify the laws in order to apply them or not? What is amazing is that there are no inconveniences when we’re talking about violating human rights. Yet, there are many incoveniences when we talk about judges, or taking people to trial who have committed human rights violations. We must respect the law and the autonomy of judges and politicians who complain that judicial action will affect the stability of a country, but who do not respect the rule of the law. If those in political power would support transparency, then democracy, political systems, and also the economy would be fortified. But they are fearful of being called into court, so they do not want an international judiciary with real power. That’s why the United States, for example, will not ratify the International Criminal Court. World leaders should have no fear of accepting jurisdiction for a court which will only prosecute crimes against humanity or other international crimes. They have no problem accepting economic globalization, or the free circulation of people among European states. Europe has no problem in accepting a common law restriction to immigration. They acknowledge some crimes are transnational and that they affect humanity in general. So what is the problem with judging these crimes? We laud ourselves for setting up norms and structures and then we claim these laws do not apply to us. Since Nuremberg we have gone out of our way not to apply the laws. In Cambodia they were not applied because of China. In South America they were not applied because of the United States, and in South Africa they were not applied because of the United Kingdom. Now, finally, a new consciousness is being created in the wake of awful atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda. The denunciations and activities of nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have contributed to this consciousness. So when cases dealing with these issues have come before people like me, we have thought we have the means, why not use them? An independent judiciary can take advantage of the legal instruments, and develop them, and thereby help society.

International principles must be applied. It is possible to hold perpetrators of mass human rights violations accountable. The president of Chad has been detained in Senegal for torture. Italy was opening investigations for the crimes committed when the attempt to murder Bernardo Leighton occurred in Rome. There have been spectacular advances, like the decision of the House of Lords that Pinochet is not immune from prosecution. The international community has now accepted, thanks to this case in England, that the principle of universal jurisdiction is valid. Four years ago, when I started these cases, jurisdiction was a formidable obstacle. We were actually creating that path. Now in universities and international forums people recognize that we can use all these laws that had been passed but never used before. Now we know we can use them.

When interpreting a law, a judge can develop the law or be conservative about it. We have been able to open up progressive interpretations of the law. When you face one of these problems what you must do is see beyond the end of your nose. You must determine who the victims are and how international law can be used to hold the perpetrators responsible, and protect the victims efficiently.

When this is all in the history books, the way such cases were conducted will be standard practice for applying the principle of universal justice and prosecuting crimes of genocide, terrorism, torture, or forced disappearances. It will simply be an issue of victims, perpetrators, and application of the law. Today some people say that it is a political and economic problem and that relationships between one country and another may be harmed. But in very few years everybody will say what this is; it is evident that it was only an issue of law.

Political leaders claim to be concerned with upholding the law and meanwhile they insist on compromise when it comes to human rights. So it seems it’s always the crazy mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or the crazy students of Tiananmen, or women in Morocco or in Jordan who ask for equal rights with men, or women in Iran who don’t want their faces covered, who are responsible for advancing human rights. The leaders forget their own responsibilities very quickly, along with the victims.

Being a judge is not a calling; its something much simpler. The only thing is that you just have to do your job right, that’s it. If a case comes to you, you can ask some simple questions and apply the law—and you are doing legally what a judge must do. But of course you know that if you start asking more questions, then the case gets complicated. So you will not be able to go home early. You will have to stay late. But I believe that’s actually the difference: you must ask more questions until you get to all single points in a case, and not only to the minimum legal points of the case, which is another way of seeing this job.

Courage means to be honest with yourself and to be able to overcome the fear that you have. When you’re doing this work, you have so many responsibilities it is hard for outsiders to understand how you can manage with such a weak infrastructure. You have so many things to do that actually you have no time to think of courage. You just have to do those things. Perhaps the biggest fear is the fear of making mistakes. Or of damaging people. But that is part of the job of a judge and you have to make decisions. And sometimes decisions are very, very hard to make. I always suffer when I have to send anybody to prison because I am always aware that I can be mistaken.

Some people may think that I am a very tough person but I am actually not. Sometimes it is very hard to continue when you are convinced that somebody is guilty but the legal system has not been able to prove guilt, thus he is innocent. It is most difficult to maintain this stance when one of your colleagues is murdered. The next day you have to go to the office and keep on working. And then you have to have the author of the murder in front of you. And if there are not enough legal proofs to sentence him, you have to accept it, and release him. But then, with the same rigor, when the legal proof exists, you have to condemn him.

There was a Sicilian judge, Giovanni Falcone, who for me was the personification of judicial independence. He was assassinated in 1992 for his commitment to justice. It was then that the Italian government realized that they had to fight the Mafia. When you see people of such courage, you understand how important the rule of law is. You have to give something to society in exchange for that which society gives to you. This is a way of thinking, a life philosophy. It is very demanding and difficult, too.

Before dying, my father said, “Son, you must have broad shoulders.” Our family has broad shoulders. You always have space to bear a bit more load. But you have to make sure that other people don’t notice it. What does this mean? You always have to have your tie on. You have to go into the office smiling and then if you want to cry, you have to wait until you go home. That’s what you have to do. Sometimes, it is difficult to bear.