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Newsmaker: Baltasar Garzon is a legal eagle with singed wings

In the sort of trouble Edward Snowden found himself, Baltasar Garzón may have seemed just the man to turn to.

In the sort of trouble Edward Snowden found himself, Baltasar Garzón may have seemed just the man to turn to.

Snowden, a system administrator working in United States defence and security, is currently the world's most talked-about fugitive from criminal justice. US federal prosecutors want him on espionage charges for leaking details of vast surveillance operations, to which he gained access while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), to the media.

Like Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website that specialises in the disclosure of information governments want to keep secret, Snowden knows he could end up serving long years in jail if the US authorities get their way.

And like Assange, he had no difficulty in identifying the source of his best hope of being spared such an outcome. Who better to hire for heavyweight legal support than Garzón, who once seemed destined for the priesthood but instead rose to prominence as one of his country's most combative and also controversial legal forces?

Garzón has a chequered professional history, a provincial judge by the age of 24 but removed from the judiciary and banned from practising law in Spain last year after being convicted of using illegal wiretapping when investigating corruption allegations.

Despite the distinctly illiberal conduct that led to his domestic downfall, he remains a darling of much of the western left, which detects political manipulation in his fate.

Now, Garzón offers his services as a law consultant and is the legal director of WikiLeaks. For almost a year, he has been acting for Assange in his efforts to avoid extradition from the UK. Assange is sought in Sweden on a sexual assault allegation but has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fearing that if sent to Scandinavia he would subsequently be handed to the US authorities and face trial over the publication of classified military and diplomatic papers.

In his first comments on the Snowden affair, Garzón appeared duly sympathetic, talking of the "persecution" of those behind disclosures in the public interest and of "an assault against the people".

In a statement issued in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital where he was filming a documentary for his human rights foundation, Garzón wrote: "Mr Edward Snowden has requested my legal advice. However, before making any decision in this regard I have requested more information that will allow me to study and assess the case in depth as well as to speak to Mr Snowden.

"Therefore, I do not currently represent Mr Edward Snowden. I do defend the right of freedom of expression and freedom of information. The same rights I defend in the Assange and WikiLeaks cases and in other cases where the release of information that reveals criminality is met with the persecution of those who expose it."

Then came the setback for Snowden's hopes. Without explanation, Garzón was reported to have announced that his firm, ILOCAD, would not, after all, be acting for him. He reaffirmed his commitment to Assange "as senior legal counsel in the defence of the fundamental right to freedom of information and expression" and expressed satisfaction with a draft resolution from the legal affairs and human rights committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, asserting that people who disclosed criminal acts in the public interest should be protected from retaliation and persecution from those who commit them.

Whatever the implications for Snowden, the polemic reinforces a theme for which Garzón is known far beyond the borders of Spain.

The 57-year-old Andalusian, from farming stock - though his father worked in a petrol station - first made a name for himself in 1998 when he issued an international warrant for the arrest of the former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Its basis was the alleged torture and killing of Spanish prisoners during the years of repression that followed the toppling of Chile's Marxist government of Salvadore Allende. Pinochet was arrested while visiting London for medical treatment, but ultimately the British home secretary, Jack Straw, cited health grounds when overruling a decision allowing his extradition. Even so, the fact that the procedure stretched so far meant new ground had been broken in international jurisdiction, propelling the Spanish jurist to global renown. "Garzón changed the world," said Reed Brophy, from the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation.

Garzón has also championed victims of Franco's fascist dictatorship in Spain and levelled accusations of genocide against Argentinian military officers suspected of the disappearance and death of political opponents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

This dogged pursuit of authoritarian figures of the right has given him powerful credentials in the field of international human rights. Admirers are gushing in their praise; one said it was hard to think of any individual who had done more for Spanish justice.

But it is a field without an even playing surface. There are dissenting assessments of Garzón just as there is disagreement on his potential new client.

The man Snowden wanted as his advocate was born Baltasar Garzón Real in Torres in 1955, the second of five children.

He spent several years studying up to 16 hours a day in a seminary. But the legal profession proved a greater attraction than the church and, after completing secondary school education at the Trinity Institute of Baeza, he graduated in law from the University of Seville.

As he worked towards his degree, he took part-time jobs on building sites, waiting in restaurants and helping at the petrol station where his father worked.

Armed with his legal qualifications, he quickly flourished, advancing from the provincial judiciary to the national court. He became one of six investigating judges, gathering evidence and assessing the merits of cases before they reached trial.

The targets of his legal brain have been many and varied, including Al Qaeda suspects and drug barons as well as dictators, and some descriptions of him are extravagant.

"Those fighting for justice love him," wrote Brenda Padilla, then editor of the English-language website andalucia.com, in a glowing appraisal.

"Those lurking in the darkness of the shadows, smuggling drugs, playing naughty games with public funds or building car bombs in the name of ETA [the Basque separatist group with a long history of using violence in its campaign for independence from Madrid] hate him. In short, mention the name Garzón and the forces of evil cringe."

Padilla added that, in spite of "death warrants issued by ETA, the Colombian and Turkish Mafia and numerous other bad guys, Garzón is untiring in his fight against corruption: money laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and government corruption".

Yet his reputation for the stolid defence of human rights sits uneasily with the actions that led him to be disbarred: ordering the bugging of prison conversations between lawyers and clients during his investigation of alleged corruption involving the prime minister Mariano Rajoy's People's Party. Spain's supreme court ruled damningly that such methods were "these days found only in totalitarian regimes".

Garzón has also made enemies of Spanish separatists in the Basque and Catalan regions.

Ignacio Torres Masdeu, a Catalan writer and activist, said on his website that his readers had "probably read something about Spanish super-judge Baltasar Garzón - a hero for the victims of dictatorship".

Torres continued: "You can read all about in the judge's profiles in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wikipedia. What you won't find in those profiles is the fact that back in 1992 Garzón didn't investigate the allegations of tortures made by a group of young Catalan independentists [sic]."

The Associated Press news agency has quoted José Antonio Martin Pallin, a judge emeritus at the Spanish supreme court, as saying many had wanted revenge on Garzón. Among these enemies, he said, were other judges who pursued discreet, modestly paid careers and disapproved of his globetrotting life as a well-paid speaker on human rights.

Garzón, who married his childhood sweetheart and fathered three children, is clearly a man who divides opinion. Is he a crusading hero using his lofty skills in search of fair play for the weak and oppressed? Or a limelight-loving maverick prepared to stretch normal rules of conduct?

It was Brenda Padilla's article at andalucia.com that described him as a towering pillar of judicial rectitude: "It is difficult to imagine that anyone has done more for the Spanish justice system - especially its image in the public's eye."

But another of her references might cause even Garzón to wince. "He has been likened to Superman, the iceberg that struck the Titanic and even the great head of Inquisition, Torquemada," Padilla wrote.

By implication, the comparisons were not her own. But it can safely be assumed that Garzón would not greatly appreciate the last of them.

Tomás de Torquemada, a 15th-century Dominican prior, is described by Encyclopædia Britannica as the "the first grand inquisitor" whose name was synonymous with the "horror, religious bigotry, and cruel fanaticism" of the Spanish Inquisition.

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