January 13, 1999

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The Judge & the Dictator

By Alvaro Tizon

Though only 43 years old, Baltasar Garzon is widely admired inside Spain as a "superjudge" for his courage pursuing corrupt politicians, drug lords and arms dealers.

Now, his fame has gone worldwide with his moves to bring to justice Chile's ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet and other South American tyrants.

With his aggressive tactics, Garzon has stepped forward as a kind of international counterpart to the Italian judges who spearheaded investigations in the 1980s into links between Italian politicians and the Sicilian Mafia.

Like those investigative judges, Garzon has put his life at risk by venturing beyond the prosecution of common crimes to the murky world where criminals and national security operations intersect.

Yet, Garzon’s case against Pinochet represents a new level of challenge to the international power structure, by opening what one former CIA official has called "a can of worms" -- the history behind two decades of political murders in Latin America.

So, who is this upstart "superjudge"?

Baltasar Garzon was born to a middle-class farming family in the olive-growing Andalucia region of southern Spain. In his youth, Garzon studied in Catholic monasteries and appeared headed toward a life in the priesthood.

But Garzon had a spirited side. A fan of bullfights, rock `n roll and flamenco music, he was expelled on the last day of school reputedly for serenading a female pupil at another school, a young woman who later became his wife. With the priesthood no longer a possibility, Garzon worked at a gas station to put himself through law school and became a lawyer.

At the age of 32, Garzon began his meteoric rise through the Spanish judiciary. He was appointed one of six investigating judges on the Audiencia Nacional, the highest court for criminal cases. He quickly became known for tough evenhandedness.

With his slick-backed hair and his well-groomed elegance, Garzon also displayed a star quality that made him a favorite of the news media -- and the public.

But Garzon’s accomplishments did not always match his press clippings. In his first major case, he rounded up 54 suspected drug peddlers amid great fanfare. Yet, he failed to win more than modest jail terms against some of the suspects and others were acquitted.

In 1993, trying to add some luster to a tarnished administration, Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez persuaded Garzon to run as an independent for the national legislature. The popular Garzon came in second in votes, behind only Gonzalez.

Gonzalez put Garzon in charge of anti-drug projects, but Garzon quickly soured on his government colleagues. Considering the administration too mired in corruption, Garzon quit to return to his judicial work. He then angered Gonzalez loyalists by bringing criminal charges against a number of government officials.

Garzon ventured into even riskier territory when he began investigating national-security crimes. He uncovered evidence that Spanish police agents had tortured suspected Basque terrorists, a scandal that helped drive Gonzalez from office.

In the courts, Garzon notched his most impressive victory, winning convictions against the former interior minister and 11 others implicated in the Basque "dirty war."

At the same time, however, Garzon offended the Basque separatists by closing down a Basque newspaper that he concluded was promoting terrorism.

The “superjudge” launched other high-profile investigations of alleged terrorism. Garzon targeted Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian arms dealer who lived part-time in a luxurious Spanish villa. Garzon tried al-Kassar for alleged connections to the Achille Lauro hijacking, but Garzon lost that case.

Amid his victories and defeats, Garzon's critics derided him as a preening "star" judge who loved publicity and was prone to judicial overreach.

Yet, Garzon won admiration from many Spaniards for tackling difficult cases that put his life in jeopardy. He always traveled with bodyguards and often switched meeting places and routes to frustrate possible assassins.

Garzon's investigations into the dark underbelly of national security operations led him to his next challenge.

In September 1996, Garzon turned his attention to 320 unsolved murders and "disappearances" of Spanish citizens during the Dirty War in Argentina from 1976-83.

In 1997, Garzon demanded the arrests of Argentina's former military dictators for these crimes of state. At the time, the move seemed largely symbolic, but it did put the architects of the Dirty War on notice that they could face arrest while traveling abroad.

Garzon proved that he was serious when he arrested former Argentine officer Adolfo Scilingo during a trip to Spain. Scilingo had been the first Argentine officer to admit his participation in mass executions of political dissidents who were shackled together and shoved from planes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Garzon argued that these crimes against humanity were similar to those committed by the Nazis in World War II and that Spain had a right to prosecute the offenders under international law. The judge also sought access to Argentine military bank accounts in Switzerland. [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998]

"According to the law, these crimes must be investigated and hundreds of assassinations cannot remain unpunished," Garzon said in a rare interview in 1998. "We have a moral debt with the relatives of hundreds of victims." [NYT, Oct. 19, 1998]

The Audiencia Nacional agreed and formally granted Garzon the power to proceed against human rights abusers living outside Spain.

As Garzon's investigations proceeded, they crossed paths with the work of another Spanish judge, Manuel Garcia-Castellon. Less flamboyantly, Garcia-Castellon was examining the fate of nearly 100 Spaniards who "disappeared" under Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile.

Garcia-Castellon focused especially on the cross-border assassination schemes known as Operation Condor, named after a high-flying vulture that traverses South America's Southern Cone.

Early in 1998, Garcia-Castellon traveled to Washington to ask the FBI for its secret files on Operation Condor. The judge cited a 1990 legal assistance treaty that calls for the exchange of information between U.S. and Spanish law enforcement.

At the end of his trip, Garcia-Castellon stated that he received "full collaboration from the FBI and the Department of Justice." But he returned to Spain mostly with information that was already known.

The bulk of U.S. evidence came from the case of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat who was killed in Washington in 1976 by a car-bomb.

Yet, beyond the FBI data, Garcia-Castellon gained little insight into what U.S. intelligence files might hold. The CIA had worked closely with DINA in the mid-1970s. But the CIA never has divulged what it knew about Operation Condor.

Garcia-Castellon also interviewed Michael Townley, the DINA agent who carried out the Letelier assassination. He pleaded guilty and now is in a U.S. federal witness protection program. The judge met, too, with former DINA chief Manuel Contreras, who was convicted in Chile in 1997 for masterminding the Letelier plot.

In that interview, Contreras repeated his claim that his superiors in the Chilean government approved all his actions. Contreras argued that if the idea was to try the real DINA director, Chilean courts "should not have tried me." Other government documents have established that Pinochet kept tight personal control over DINA. [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998.]

Garcia-Castellon concluded that his initial investigation had uncovered enough evidence to justify questioning Pinochet about his responsibility for the human rights crimes. But Pinochet was protected in Chile by an amnesty that he arranged for himself before relinquishing power in 1990.

Garcia-Castellon saw his chance to force Pinochet's cooperation when the ex-dictator began scouting for a European hospital that could operate on a disk problem in his back. France rebuffed Pinochet's request to be treated there, but Great Britain consented to Pinochet's visa request.

The stakes were rising. Garcia-Castellon decided that the move to grab Pinochet needed more clout. The case seemed tailor-made for the "superjudge" -- Baltasar Garzon. Garcia-Castellon persuaded Garzon to take over the case.

Garzon, in turn, reached out to British authorities to execute an arrest warrant on Pinochet when he was in London. On Oct. 16, as the ex-dictator was recovering at a London hospital, Scotland Yard placed him under arrest.

In the following weeks, Pinochet's defenders denounced the arrest as unjustified. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher praised Pinochet as "a friend of England during the Falklands War" in 1982.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer howled that Pinochet's arrest was "a blow for the most ideologically selective justice, and for the rankest hypocrisy" -- an attempt by "the European left ... to give itself a little consolation prize." [WP, Oct. 23, 1998]

William F. Buckley, another longtime Pinochet enthusiast, denounced the charges as "an act of ideological malice" against a restrained military leader who ousted "a president [Salvador Allende] who was defiling the Chilean constitution and waving proudly the banner of his friend and idol, Fidel Castro." [NYP, Oct. 23, 1998]

However, other European nations -- France, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Norway and Luxembourg -- sided with Garzon's argument. They weighed in with their own demands for Pinochet's extradition to face other murder charges.

Some Europeans saw the Pinochet case as a way to demonstrate rejection of Nazi-like tactics anywhere in the world.

"Pinochet is an historic opportunity to show Europe's commitment in the fight for human rights," said Spanish Socialist Jose Borrel. "If we give up on Pinochet's arrest, what will happen tomorrow with characters like [Serbia's Slobodan] Milosevic ... when their cases would be open in the courts?"

Spain has its own mixed record of standing up to fascists, of course. To ease a transition to democracy in the 1970s, the Spanish government pardoned officials involved in crimes during the rule of fascist Gen. Francisco Franco.

Not surprisingly, some former Franco officials objected strongly to Garzon’s attempts to extradite Pinochet. Martin Billa, Franco's minister of government and now a businessman with $2 billion in investments in Chile, saw Garzon's actions as impractical as well as unfair.

"Perhaps the judges can and must act according to the old saying: 'justice even if the world goes down.' But others can and must do everything to avoid the end of the world," Billa said.

Other Spanish businessmen warned that the Argentine-Chilean cases could even backfire. Punishing the former dictators might disrupt the hard journey toward democracy under way in Argentina and Chile, they argued.

Nevertheless, according to polls in two major Spanish newspapers, El Mundo and El Pais, some 70-80 percent of the people favor trying Pinochet in Spain for his crimes. There appeared to be a surge in public pride in the integrity of the Spanish judicial system.

As the international debate raged, Pinochet's fate in Great Britain swung back and forth.

One court ruled that Pinochet carried immunity as a former head of state and should be allowed to return to Chile. But a judicial panel in the House of Lords overturned that judgment and Prime Minister’s Tony Blair’s government ruled that the extradition proceedings can move forward.

Pinochet's position was dealt another blow on Dec. 1 when the Clinton administration announced that it would declassify more secret documents that might be relevant to Garzon's case. U.S. officials said the cause of human rights outweighed the risk to U.S. national security.

Commenting on that decision, one former CIA official complained to The New York Times that the decision could open "a can of worms."

The fear among CIA veterans was that the evidence might implicate senior officials of the U.S. government, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who oversaw the Chile policy for President Nixon in the early 1970s. [NYT, Dec. 2, 1998]

An unflattering light could fall as well on former President George Bush, who was CIA director in 1976 when DINA agents snuck into Washington to carry out the Letelier bombing.

It was unclear, however, if the CIA bungled the Letelier matter by missing the warning signs or if the spy agency chose to look the other way while an allied government eliminated a troublesome dissident.

At press time, Pinochet was still battling Garzon's extradition request and preparing for a re-hearing of his arguments before the House of Lords.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the stakes remained high. If Garzon succeeded in putting Pinochet on trial, the investigation might do more than bring a brutal dictator to justice. It might shed light on one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War.

The case also might put some well-respected American officials on the spot.

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