MADRID — The superstar Spanish judge who won global fame for aggressively taking on international human rights cases was convicted Thursday of overstepping his jurisdiction in a domestic corruption probe and barred from the bench for 11 years, marking a spectacular fall from grace for one of the nation's most prominent citizens.
Baltasar Garzon was unanimously convicted by a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court. Because he is 56, the punishment could end his Spanish judicial career. Hours after the verdict, hundreds of Garzon supporters braved freezing weather in Madrid's central Sol plaza shouting "Shame! Shame!" in protest.
It was just one of three cases pending against Garzon, who is still awaiting a verdict in trial on the same charge — knowingly overstepping the bounds of his jurisdiction — for launching a probe in 2008 of right-wing atrocities committed during and after the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939 even though the crimes were covered by a 1977 amnesty.
In Thursday's verdict, the court ruled that Garzon acted arbitrarily in ordering jailhouse wiretaps of detainees talking to their lawyers, the court said, adding that his actions "these days are only found in totalitarian regimes."
Ironically, Garzon is best known for indicting a totalitarian ruler, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in 1998, and trying to put him on trial in Madrid for crimes against humanity. He also indicted Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the Sept. 11 attacks.
The verdict came despite declarations by Spanish prosecutors that Garzon committed no crime. The charges against him stem from a complaint filed by lawyers who were taped in prison while visiting their clients. In a quirk of Spanish law, people can seek criminal charges even if prosecutors disagree.
Garzon took on cases using the principle of universal jurisdiction — the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere. He and colleagues at the National Court went on to champion the doctrine and try to apply it to abuses in far-flung places like Rwanda and Tibet.
Legal experts have said Spain's Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, probably won't accept an appeal of the judge's conviction, although Garzon's lawyer could try, or file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, that would likely take years.
The lawyer, Francisco Javier Baena Bocanegra told the Cadena Ser radio network that Garzon was "suffering severely," but suggested he will appeal. "He is completely innocent," Bocanegra said. "We face a long road ahead, but we still have strength."
Garzon also said he was evaluating his appeal options without offering specifics, and vehemently denied breaking any laws.
"I have worked against terrorism, drug trafficking, crimes against humanity and corruption. I've done it with the law in hand, together with prosecutors, judges and police," he said in a statement. "I have always strictly complied with the rules, I have defended the rights of defendants and victims in very adverse situations."
Human rights groups that hold up Garzon as a hero slammed the decision, saying he was targeted by critics who wanted to bring him down.
"It looks like Garzon's enemies got what they wanted. Absent compelling reasons, the criminal prosecution of a judge for his judicial actions undermines the independence of the judiciary," said Reed Brody, a senior legal expert for Human Rights Watch.
Although Garzon enjoyed rock-star status among rights groups at home and abroad, he made many enemies in Spain, especially judicial colleagues uncomfortable with his celebrity and allegedly corner-cutting tactics in legal procedures, and conservative politicians who claimed he was more interested in fame than justice.
In the civil war case, the amnesty law came two years after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, the victor in the war, as Spain moved to restore democracy and rebuild after nearly 40 years of rule under Franco.
The civil war trial concluded on Wednesday, but that verdict is not expected for weeks. Garzon has been suspended from his job at the National Court since 2010 when he was indicted in that case.
Garzon faces more legal woes in Spain from a probe that could see him indicted over ties with a big Spanish bank that financed human rights seminars he oversaw while on sabbatical in New York in 2005 and 2006.
Thursday's conviction relates to Garzon's decision in 2009 to order wiretaps of jailhouse conversations between lawyers and detainees accused of paying off politicians of the now-ruling conservative Popular Party to obtain lucrative government contracts in the Madrid and Valencia regions.
Such wiretaps are permitted for terrorism cases, but Spanish law is more vague on non-terror cases.
Garzon argued that he ordered the wiretaps because of suspicions the lawyers were being given instructions by the detainees to launder money.
But the Supreme Court said Thursday that Garzon had no legitimate reason to suspect the lawyers, ruling that the wiretaps were not justified and violated the detainees' right to a fair defense.
The judges wrote that Garzon engaged in "practices that these days are only found in totalitarian regimes in which anything is considered fair game in order to obtain information that interests, or supposedly interests, the state."
In the civil war case, prosecutors also say Garzon committed no crime. Those charges stem from a complaint filed by two small right-wing groups.Comment on this story
After Garzon was indicted and suspended in 2010, he took a six-month job in The Hague at the International Criminal Court as an adviser to its chief prosecutor. After that, he accepted a position as a human rights adviser to the government of Colombia, which is fighting leftist rebels and powerful drug lords. So even if Garzon's career ends in Spain, he could presumably accept a similar position.
Protesters said Garzon's conviction was a major setback for Spanish democracy.
"Spanish justice is shameful," said Diego Torrel, a 53-year-old railway construction worker. "It seems like we still have the same judges we had during the Franco era."
Alan Clendenning and Jorge Sainz contributed from Madrid.