UN committee slams Spain for ‘arbitrary’ trials of former judge

Trials of Spain's famous ex-judge Baltasar Garzón over his handling of two high-profile cases were arbitrary and did not respect principles of judicial independence, a UN committee said Thursday.

UN committee slams Spain for 'arbitrary' trials of former judge
Garzón is now a lawyer defending high-profile clients like Julian Assange. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Independent experts on the Human Rights Committee concluded that the criminal proceedings against Garzón nearly a decade ago, and especially his conviction in one case for wilful abuse of power were “arbitrary and unforeseeable”.

The committee, whose opinions and recommendations are non-binding but carry reputational weight, said the ruling was its first condemning a state for using criminal law against a judge.

Garzón first won global renown by trying to extradite Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet from London in 1998 and is now a lawyer defending high-profile clients like Julian Assange.

He was criminally prosecuted in early 2012 for alleged abuse of power in two separate cases that critics charged were politically motivated.

One case was brought over his decision to open a probe into the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and General Francisco Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

Garzón, who was accused of violating an amnesty agreement, was acquitted in that case.

But he was convicted in a nearly simultaneous abuse of power trial over a decision to order wiretaps in a probe into a corruption scandal involving members of the conservative party, and was handed an 11-year suspension from the bench.

Garzón filed a complaint with the UN committee in 2016, alleging he had been a victim of multiple rights violations.

The committee, made up of 18 independent experts who monitor countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, concluded there had been no justification for bringing the judge to trial in either case.

If there had been judicial errors as claimed by the state, they “should have been corrected by a review before a higher court and not through the criminal prosecution”, the experts said.

The committee also found that Garzón’s right to be tried by an impartial tribunal had been violated, since two trials took place almost simultaneously and several Supreme Court judges participated in both cases, despite his request they be recused.

It called on Spain to expunge Garzón’s criminal record and provide him with “adequate compensation”.

“Judges should be able to interpret and apply the law without fear of being punished or judged for the content of their decisions,” committee member Jose Santos Pais said in the statement.

“This is essential to preserve judicial independence.”

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Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.