The legal essence of the cases of “prevaricación” against Baltasar Garzón

The most essential legal aspect of two of the cases against Baltasar Garzón, the case relating to the Gürtel network wiretaps (las escuchas Gürtel) and the case relating to “historical memory”, is often obscured by a focus on whether Garzón made the right decisions in these cases, or not.

That aspect is the nature of the judicial error he is accused of committing. It is not unusual for judges to reach decisions that prove to be erroneous when reversed on appeal by a higher court. This is the normal way control of legality and of the actions of judges is maintained.

But what is involved in the Gürtel network case and the “historical memory” case is something altogether different. These cases involve private criminal actions brought by the accused in the Gürtel case and by two right-wing groups in the “historical memory” case. Those who disagree with the judge’s previous decisions are now having their day in court–against the judge–in criminal actions which they themselves have brought.

The nature of the charge is signficant: prevaricación, willful decision against justice.

As the Spanish Supreme Court proceeds to deliberate and issue a decision in the Gürtel network case, after three days of an oral trial at the Court, it is useful to closely reread the texts of Articles 446 and 447 of the Spanish Criminal Code, which are the provisions the criminal action against Garzón are based on. Then, after analyzing carefully the text of the law, the reader can decide whether prevaricación has been committed or is being committed in the case, and by whom.

The following analysis is reproduced from The Trenchant Observer, “Garzon’s Accusers are Accused: Abuse of Judicial Power in Garzón Case is Stain on Spanish Judiciary, “The Trenchant Observer, April 13, 2010.

With respect to the case against Garzón, it is not an overstatement to say that the entire Judiciary in Spain is on trial.

It is difficult to comprehend how the Supreme Court of Spain has rejected earlier appeals by Garzón to halt the proceedings. Judge Varela, according to reports in El País, has jumped the gun by characterizing the facts in dispute as constituting the more serious of two possible crimes which the alleged facts could even conceivably have constituted.

The first crime is that of Intentional Unjust Decision (Prevaricación) under Article 446.3 of the Spanish Criminal Code, which provides:

Article 446

The Judge or Magistrate who, knowingly, shall issue a decision or resolution that is unjust shall be punished:

1) With sentence of from one to four years imprisonment in the case of an unjust judgment against the accused in a criminal case for a felony when the sentence has not yet been executed, and with one and a half times the same sentence if the judgment has been executed. In both cases there will be imposed the additional punishment of absolute disqualification for a period of 10 to 20 years.

2) With the sentence of a fine of six to 12 months (wages) and special disqualification from public employment or office for a period of six to 12 years, in the case of an unjust judgment issued against a defendant in the case of a midemeanor (falta),

3) With the sentence of a fine of 12 to 24 months (wages) and special disqualification from public employment or office for a period of 10 to 20 years, when he issues any other decision or resolution that is unjust.

The second crime is that of Grossly Negligent Unjust Decision (Prevaricación) under Article 447 of the Criminal Code, which provides:

Article 447

The judge or magistrate who, by gross imprudence or inexcusable ignorance (imprudencia grave o ignorancia inexcusable), shall issue a decision or resolution which is manifestly unjust shall incur the punishment of special disqualification from public employment or office for a period of from two to six years.

Given the clear precedents that exist in international law, including a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights in 2003 upholding the French conviction of Ely Ould Dah of Mauritania for torture despite the fact that he was not present at the trial and despite a law of amnesty in Mauritania, it is difficult to see how the Spanish Supreme Court could reject the appeal of the denial of Garzon’s motion for dismissal, as they in fact did.

Whether Baltasar Garzón’s decisions were correct or not in accordance with Spanish law is a matter for the Spanish courts, and ultimately the European Court of Human Rights, to decide. The European Convention on Human Rights is itself part of Spanish constitutional law.

Appealing the decisions of a judge on legal grounds is a correct and proper way to express disagreement with a decision, within a democratic state governed by law.

Criminally prosecuting the judge who is the author of that decision in an attempt to end his career, is quite something else.

A travesty of justice has already occurred, at two levels: first, the order of prosecution by Judge Luciano Varela, and second, the decision of the Supreme Court to deny Garzon’s appeal of Varela’s denial of his motion for dismissal.

How long this travesty of justice continues will tell us a lot about the Spanish judiciary and the individuals who currently hold the highest judicial offices in Spain.

The idea that a European judge could have his career in effect ended by the machinations of fellow judges against him, for ordering the investigation of where victims of crimes against humanity (forced disappearances and presumed executions) are buried, is a stain on the Spanish Judiciary, which will remain until Garzón is cleared of these charges and any other charges of a similar nature.

Should the Spanish courts persist in failing to rectify this obvious abuse of judicial power, that stain will ultimately be sealed in history with a judgment against Spain by the European Court of Human Rights.


While the analysis above refers to the “historical memory” case, it applies equally to the Gürtel network case, which was tried in the Supreme Court on January 17, 18 and 19, 2012. We are awaiting the decision in that case.

The trial of Garzón for prevaricación in the “historical memory” case begins next week, on January 24.

Stay tuned.

The Trenchant Observer


See also The Trenchant Observer, “The Baltasar Garzón Case: In Spain, justice itself is on trial,” January 17, 2012 (updated January 20, 2012).