Garzon goes to the ECHR…

… as a plaintiff, not as a judge. According to this press release from Interights, Balthazar Garzon has filed a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights challenging his prosecution in Spain for having opened an investigation in 2006 into events having taken place during the Franco era, despite the existence of an amnesty law.

Readers of this blog (here, here and here) will know that I did not join Garzon’s fan club when these events unfolded last spring. I was puzzled at how little consideration was given to the Spanish legal system, and ultimately, I believe that Garzon has ambitions that far exceed the constraints of his function in Spain and should consider a career in an international court, such as the ICC.

So what is the basis for this complaint. Here is a relevant portion from the press release:

Judge Garzón’s case represents a threat to the independence of judges and to their role in ensuring accountability for alleged widespread and systematic crimes. In his case Judge Garzón alleges that the criminal case against him in Spain violates several of that country’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. These include the obligation to protect judicial independence generally, including protecting judges from unfounded criminal prosecutions as exemplified by this case. Specifically, the prosecution of Judge Garzón violates the duty not to subject individuals to an inherently unfair criminal process, to only prosecute on the basis of clear criminal law, strictly applied, to respect private life and professional development and the right of judges to reasoned judicial decisions in the exercise of judicial functions.

Just a few brief comments.

First of all, I’m not even sure the case is admissible. Indeed, “the Court may only deal with the
matter after all domestic remedies have been exhausted, according to the generally recognised rules of international law, and within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken” (Article 35, EConvHR). His case has not started, and therefore Garzon has not exhausted all local remedies, especially given the fact that there is no certainty that he will indeed be found guilty. Of course, Garzon could claim undue delay in the prosecution itself, given that after a year, the trial has not started, but that is not what Interights seems to be arguing.

Second of all, there seems to be a confusion about what the ECHR does. Of course, its ultimate ambition and goal is to promote the rule of law, which does include an independent judiciary, but it is not an institutional supervision body, it does so through the violation of specific human rights of specific individuals. It is NOT an institutional rule of law supervision body. And more importantly, Human Rights Law was always primaril (although arguably that is changing) aimed at protecting individuals against the State, not the State against the State.
How does this apply to the present case? Well, the “obligation to protect judicial independence” is not specific enough to warrant a complaint. What is exactly the right being violated in the particular instance? The Press Release is ambiguous on that, but seems to be claiming the general interest of ensuring accountability for human rights violations. If that is the case, then I believe Garzon doesn’t have standing before the ECHR, as he is not directly affected in that respect. It would be for the victims of the crimes to claim that they have not received an effective remedy due to the amnesty law and the decision not to pursue the investigation, which, as far I can tell, they haven’t done (ironically, I did find a case where plaintiffs complained before the court that they had not benefited from the amnesty law, without raising an eyebrow among the judges…). In relation to this, I’m wondering if this complaint is not only unfounded legally on this point, but also disingenuous in its presentation. Indeed, according to Interight:

 The potential chilling effect on other judges when they come to determine legally or politically controversial cases is obvious, and a serious threat to judicial independence and the rule of law.

But that would only be true if the current prosecution was actually the cause for the interruption of the investigation. However, it was not! Indeed, it appears that in 2008, Garzon went to a confirming judge with his opinion about the amnesty law, who told him that he should discontinue the investigation, which he did. So the threat of prosecution is irrelevant to the fact that he followed orders in 2008. (Incidentally, that makes me agree with one point of the complaint: Garzon seems to have followed the rules. Whatever his opinion of the amnesty law and its applicability, he stopped the investigation when told to do so. That seems to be the normal functioning of a legal system, and I’m not quite sure why he should be prosecuted now)

Third of all, and as an aside, I find quite ironic the claim that a prosecution should be on the basis of “clear criminal law”, when human rights activists are usually quite happy to have individuals prosecuted for international crimes that are sometimes ill-defined in elusive customary law, where defendants are expected to know that there is enough state practice (i.e, that he’s taken the time to read the criminal codes of a number of foreign countries) for a particular provision of an international convention has attained the status of custom (see Kononov at the ECHR for an example of that).

All in all, this complaint once again illustrates the style of Judge Garzon, who just cannot prevent himself from showing his grand ambitions in terms of human rights policy, irrespective of the specific legal setting he might be operating in. His current ECHR stint is at best premature, and at worst frivolous, whatever one thinks of the Spanish Amnesty law.

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