MADRID - The Spanish judge who became an international human rights hero by indicting former dictator Augusto Pinochet of Chile denied any wrongdoing as he went on trial yesterday over his handling of a domestic corruption inquiry in a case that could end his career.
The once high-flying Baltasar Garzon, taking the stand as a criminal defendant at Spain’s Supreme Court, is charged with knowingly overstepping his jurisdiction by ordering wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between detainees and their lawyers. Such bugging is allowed in terrorism cases, but in nonterror affairs Spanish law is vague.
“Obviously, the interpretation that I make,’’ Garzon testified, “is that wiretaps can be authorized with a court order and not just in cases of terrorism.’’
Garzon said that throughout his more than 20-year career as an investigating magistrate at the National Court he has tried to protect detainees’ right to a fair defense, and “I think that was done’’ in this case.
The trial launched a grueling judicial ordeal for Garzon, who enjoys superstar status among rights groups for championing cross-border justice but has many political enemies at home.
Next week he faces another, bigger trial for investigating right-wing atrocities during the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war.
The crimes were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain moved to restore democracy after decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, whose side won the war. Franco died in 1975.
That trial is expected to take a month or more. Just three days have been set aside for the one that started yesterday.
Many in Spain see this case, the civil war trial, and a third investigation over his dealings with a big Spanish bank as punishment for his celebrity.
The trial that began yesterday centers on a network of business people accused of paying off members of the conservative Popular Party - now in power in the central government - in exchange for lucrative government contracts in the Madrid and eastern Valencia regions.
Spanish law allows the bugging of jailhouse conversations between terrorism suspects and their lawyers. But in non-terror cases, it says jailhouse wiretaps can be ordered by a judge if he or she believes the conversations will yield evidence germane to an investigation.
Garzon reiterated yesterday that he ordered the wiretaps in 2008 because he thought people visiting two top suspects in the corruption case, including their lawyers, were couriers to receive money-laundering instructions.
The lawyers for those two detainees contend that, because the law does not specifically allow for bugging of conversations between detainees and their lawyers in nonterror cases, Garzon acted illegally.
Earlier, some 50 supporters cheered outside as Garzon arrived at the ornate 18th-century palace that houses the Supreme Court. Colleagues of his from the National Court - from which he was suspended in 2010, over the civil war case - hugged him, patted him on the back and kissed him on the cheek as he stood outside the main chamber awaiting his day in court.
With his trademark slicked-back graying hair, the barrel-chested Garzon testified with a hoarse voice. He said he is overcoming a cold and fever.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of removal from the bench for 17 years. He is now 56, and judges in Spain tend to retire at 70.
The case has been brought because of a complaint by lawyers for the jailed suspects, though prosecutors say Garzon did nothing wrong and should be acquitted. This is a quirk of Spanish penal law - private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.
The same circumstances exist in the civil war case.