Acclaimed former Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzón has joined the legal team which represents Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. Wikileaks is engaged in legal actions aimed at lifting the financial embargo placed on it by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal, which has severely restricted avenues for donations to the organisation (indeed, Wikileaks recently won an action in this regard in Iceland). Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking asylum. Regardless of the outcome of his asylum claim, he faces extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault and rape when he steps outside the embassy. Assange also fears the prospect of an onward extradition to the US, which is deeply unhappy with his Wikileaks activities.
So who is Baltasar Garzón? He was a judge in Spain for 23 years to 2010. He is most famous for his attempt in 1998 to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from the UK on charges of murder and torture of Spanish citizens. That episode led to a landmark decision in the UK which established that former heads of State have no sovereign immunity with regard to international crimes like torture. Ultimately, the UK decided not to extradite Pinochet on medical grounds. But the aura of impunity attaching to former dictators was shattered.
Garzón also indicted Argentine military officers for their role in the disappearance of Spanish citizens during Argentina’s “dirty war” of 1976-1983, resulting in the successful prosecution of Navy Captain Adolfo Scilingo for crimes against humanity.
In 2009, Garzón considered filing charges against six former officials in the government of George W Bush for their role in the US’s use of torture. Wikileaks cables later revealed how pressure was applied to “force” Garzón to drop the case.
In 2008, Garzón commenced investigating crimes arising from Spain’s civil war and under the Franco dictatorship. That investigation was halted on appeal. However, two right wing groups then sued Garzón, claiming that he had knowingly overstepped his authority in opening up the Franco-era investigation in breach of Spain’s 1977 amnesty law. Ironically, the judge that pioneered the use of universal jurisdiction to indict people overseas was charged with improper conduct in investigating his own country’s dark past. The Wall Street Journal, clearly miffed at Garzón’s “extraterritorial enthusiasms”, cheered that development. Those charges were finally dismissed in February 2012.
However, Garzón was also charged with improperly ordering wiretaps in a corruption case, for which he was found guilty by the Spanish Supreme Court in February 2012. He has consequently been barred from Spain’s legal profession for 11 years. Many see the disbarment as retaliation for Garzón’s trailblazing human rights work, and, as described by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, “a massive attack on the independence of the judiciary and on a very brave judge”. In contrast, his critics have “rejoiced at the downfall of a man they saw as vain, media-loving, transparently leftwing and a loose cannon in the Spanish judicial system”.
In a joint press statement issued on Tuesday, Assange and Garzón stated that they have formulated a “new legal strategy”, aimed at defending Wikileaks and Assange from the financial embargo, and from “secret US processes” which “have compromised and contaminated other legal processes” in the UK and Sweden. In hiring Garzón, Assange has added serious human rights and international law firepower to his support team. He has also hired a man who, like himself, has upset some very powerful people, and who has divided public opinion.