The final judgement

This week, the United Nations' Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) announced its decision that two 2012 trials against Spanish human rights judge Baltasar Garzón were arbitrary and lacking impartiality, thus upholding Garzón's claims that he suffered human rights violations throughout them. It's the first time that the Committee has condemned a state for criminally prosecuting a judge for doing his or her job, and reopens the debate about the politicisation of Spain's highest judicial bodies.

Garzón received international attention for securing the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998. Ten years later, he launched a controversial investigation into the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during Spain's 1936-39 Civil War and the ensuing, forty-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Critics, mainly from the Spanish right, claimed that he was violating 1977's "Pact of Forgetting", an agreement made after Franco's death by both right and left wing parties to not prosecute crimes committed by either side during the Civil War or dictatorship.

This was one the cases for which Garzón was suspended in 2010, pending a decision by Spain's Supreme Court on whether his activities breached the 1977 Amnesty Law. The court's other investigation concerned the so-called Gürtel corruption case against the Popular Party, in which Garzón was accused of phone tapping.

Just under two years later, the Supreme Court acquitted Garzón for the Civil War and Franco-era investigations, but disbarred him for eleven years for his conduct in the Gürtel case. The UNHCR maintains, however, that both of these trials were lacking impartiality and that in neither case did Garzón commit professional infractions, let alone any serious enough to merit criminal prosecution.

The Committee's decision lends credence to concerns expressed at the time by Garzón's supporters, to the effect that the suspension and subsequent disbarral were efforts to thwart a project to which the Spanish right was deeply opposed. "Judges," said the Committee, "should be able to interpret and apply the law without fear of being punished or judged for the content of their decisions."

The underlying criticism is that Spain's Supreme Court, far from being an independent body that metes out justice impartially and disinterestedly, has become a politicised extension of the executive. The court also provoked this accusation - apparently for good reason - in October 2019, when it gave lengthy prison sentences to the orchestrators of an illegal independence referendum held in Catalonia in October 2017 (all of whom were granted pardons in June).

Such draconian punishments made it plausible to believe that the judges wanted to make examples of these secessionists, especially as former Catalan president Artur Mas was merely fined and banned from politics for two years for committing the same offences in 2014. One wonders whether the UNHRC will, in time, also find the separatist trials of 2019 to have been insufficiently impartial and in violation of fundamental human rights.