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Spain Sets Economy Above Human Rights Says Pioneering Judge

posted 21 Feb 2014, 08:20 by Mpelembe   [ updated 21 Feb 2014, 08:48 ]

Spain's Baltasar Garzon says Madrid is placing political interests and trade above the worldwide pursuit of human rights abusers.

MADRID, SPAIN (FEBRUARY 17, 2014) (REUTERS) -  Spain's most famous human rights investigator Baltasar Garzon has accused his country of seeking to curb judges' powers to pursue rights abusers around the world in order to avoid diplomatic tension and damage to trade ties.

Spain pioneered the use of universal jurisdiction, the concept that crimes such as genocide and torture are so serious they can be prosecuted across borders. But Spain's ruling People's Party (PP), which can push through laws easily thanks to an absolute majority, has sent a bill to parliament aimed at preventing judges from investigating cases unless the suspects are Spaniards or resident in Spain.

Garzon linked the attempt to water down the law to China's anger over Spanish arrest warrants issued this month for former Chinese officials accused of genocide in Tibet.

Although China is not a major trading partner of Spain, the euro zone's fourth largest economy has wooed the world power for investment in everything from industrial stakes to sovereign debt and as a market for Spanish ham and wine.

"It (this government) is so pragmatic that it opts for that economic peace rather than a legal fight to defend principles," Garzon, a former judge, told Reuters in an interview this week. "The only principles that matter are those of the market. That is grave."

The 58-year-old human rights crusader has been instrumental in using the principle of universal justice to probe alleged torture and bring justice to decades-old cases.

Groups in Spain and abroad have spoken out against the government's move to restrict the law and Amnesty International has called the proposed reform a step backwards for human rights. But a PP spokesman said the current law was not efficient and caused diplomatic conflict.

The PP has said the reform of the law was not motivated by any particular case and that the proposed changes put Spanish courts in line with international treaties. PP officials have said that many of the human rights investigations in Spain have led nowhere and created false hope for victims of atrocities. But Garzon said the country must not shy away when the pursuit of justice provoked the wrath of powerful countries such as ChinaRussia or the United States.

"Are there going to be diplomatic problems? Yes," he said, "but if we don't overcome those problems, we will always be humiliated. Or is it that human rights laws only apply to small countries and not important ones?"

Garzon played a leading role in the first trial in Spain under laws allowing the prosecution of crimes committed in another country - the 2005 Spanish trial that convicted Argentine former navy captainAdolfo Scilingo of throwing political prisoners from aircraft during the military regime.

The case led to the overturning of Argentina's 1987 amnesty laws that were introduced to protect perpetrators of crimes committed during its military dictatorship.

Since then, Argentina has put hundreds on trial for murder, disappearances and torture carried out under the dictatorship.

"Argentina is an example of how universal jurisdiction should be applied, of how justice should deal with genocide," Garzon said. "Not only is it (Argentina) investigating repressors and taking them to trial, but also civilians and those who benefited economically or who used the repression and dictatorship to make large fortunes."

Garzon grabbed worldwide attention in 1998 when Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet was briefly arrested in London on his initiative, the first time a former head of state had been arrested on a warrant brought under universal justice.

However, an attempt to investigate Spain's own dark past during the 36-year dictatorship of GeneralFrancisco Franco has been less successful.

Turning the tables, hundreds of Spaniards are looking to an Argentine court which is invoking universal jurisdiction to seek justice for crimes committed under Franco.

"We looked into Argentina's past in 1996, now Argentina is looking into crimes committed under Franco that Spanish justice has shamefully decided not to investigate, not to make reparations, not even to search for the truth. This means we have no guarantee it can't happen again," he said.

But no perpetrators have been arrested or extradited to Argentina for trial so far.

In Spain, Garzon opened an inquiry into Franco-era crimes in 2008 but later dropped the politically charged case.

Garzon himself was barred from the bench in 2012 for illegal wiretapping and no longer practises as a judge in Spain.

"I firmly believe that, to a great degree, there's a relationship between that web of silence, of fear, of impunity, with the situation we're currently living in. Because we have not yet taken on our own past. We have not found it within ourselves. What is more, some even deny it. Some are even empowering once again the Franco regime," he added.

Garzon travels the world for his human rights foundation, which has offices in four countries. He said he had turned down a request for legal representation by NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden because he was too busy working on Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange's case.

Asked whether he would return to serve as a judge in Spain once his 11-year ban is over, Garzon said he hadn't given it much thought.

"My work is honest and very interesting and takes up all my time," he said. "I don't have time to agonise over old scars. That's in the past."