For generations in Western culture, legal jurisdiction over people and events within a nation’s borders rested only with that nation’s government. In recent years, however, human rights activists have pushed the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” by which judges in one country can assert authority to prosecute any offense regardless of where it took place.
The zealots have found their champion in one Baltasar Garzon, a judge on the Spanish National Court. A socialist activist as a college student, Garzon at age 32 became the youngest magistrate on the court. Now 53, he has spent many of the intervening years practicing what can only be called judicial megalomania.
Thriving on publicity, Judge Garzon has, at various times, gone after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the late former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, 98 former Argentine military members (despite an amnesty enacted after the end of that country’s “dirty war”). In 2003 he even indicted Osama bin Laden and 34 other alleged terrorists, a few of whom were in Spanish custody. He charged them with being members of a terrorist gang and for being involved in the 9/11 attacks, rather than any terrorist acts in Spain. The proper jurisdiction for anything involving 9/11 would have been the United States. As desirable as it would have been to capture and try bin Laden, only 18 of the defendants were convicted of having terrorist links and none with 9/11.
Late last year, Judge Garzon reopened the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, by accusing the late Generalissimo Franco (dead 33 years) and 44 of his army and Falange Party officials of war crimes. Inasmuch as a 1977 amnesty sought to put that war to rest through national reconciliation, cooler heads prevailed. On the eve of a National Court ruling that he had no jurisdiction, the publicity-seeking Garzon dropped his probe.
Last year, Judge Garzon found a new, much larger target: alleged polluters of the atmosphere He said he would fight global warming by bringing them to justice wherever they were. He hasn’t yet turned this plan into action. Instead, his most recent judicial escapade involves two Russian citizens, one of whom has lived peacefully on the Spanish island of Majorca for a decade.
Last June he initiated the arrest of Gennady Petrov. The Guardia Civil, with helicopters overhead and tipped off media outlets present, surrounded Petrov’s house, grilled him and his wife for four hours, carted off jewelry and other valuables, took two automobiles and threw Petrov in jail. Two days later he was charged with money laundering, falsification of documents and violations of tax law. Ironically, Petrov had moved to Spain to escape being a possible target of Russian mafiosi. He had no criminal record in Spain or Russia. His lawyer contends that the court has produced insufficient evidence to substantiate its indictment and shows no inclination to bring Petrov to trial (under Spanish law, he may be held for up to four years before being tried).
In October, Judge Garzon stretched “universal jurisdiction” once again. He issued a summons to appear for questioning for Vladislav Reznik, a member of the Russian State Duma (legislature), for alleged connections to organized crime. Reznik lives in Russia, but has a vacation home, purchased from Petrov, on Majorca. This residence was raided and some contents seized. Reznik chairs the Duma’s Financial Markets Committee and is a reputable citizen. Viktor Pleskachevsky, chairman of another Duma committee, said of the raid, “As the search [of Reznik’s Majorca house] was conducted within the framework of a criminal case unknown to us, in the attendance of the media, and Judge Garzon is well known for hearing political cases, we have grounds to suspect that it is a politically motivated action.”
For the moment, Judge Garzon is distracted. He took a sabbatical in 2005-06 to teach at New York University and was paid $200,000 in addition to his judge’s salary. Spain’s judicial oversight board claims he did not advise its members of his double-dipping arrangement, something that is required by law. The board’s investigators must decide by mid-April whether to drop the case or penalize Garzon.
If it is dropped, the world can expect this judicial megalomaniac to look for other tempting targets, such as U.S. military leaders or government officials, past or present, who carry out policies he considers “war crimes.”
(Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.)