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Convicted Spanish judge Garzon now a fallen crusader

He is the Spanish judge who tried to extradite Augusto Pinochet, indicted Osama bin Laden, helped dismantle armed Basque separatist group ETA, and dared to probe Franco-era crimes.

But in the end Judge Baltasar Garzon’s internationally renowned judicial career was brought to an abrupt end over wiretaps that he was ruled to have illegally ordered during a probe into political corruption.

The hyperactive 56-year-old, with his white hair combed back, has divided Spanish opinion.

Both reviled and admired for his crusading style, he was often seen as a thorn in the side of the establishment.

He ended up in the dock himself, facing criminal charges in two separate trials since last month.

In one case he was accused of abusing his authority by probing the disappearances of thousands of people in the era of General Francisco Franco, despite a political amnesty.

That trial, which drew condemnation from international rights groups, wrapped up Wednesday with no date set for a verdict.

But it was the wiretapping case, which attracted less international attention, that proved his downfall.

Garzon was found Thursday to have ordered illegal wiretaps of conversations between jailed suspects and their lawyers in a corruption case involving members of the conservative Popular Party.

During the trial Garzon insisted the wiretaps were legal because the lawyers themselves were implicated in the case and he wanted to prevent suspected money-laundering while the suspects were in jail.

The verdict ousted him permanently from the National Court, Spain’s top criminal court, barred him from taking other judicial posts for 11 years, and obliged him to pay a small fine.

His detractors accuse him of being more concerned with making the front pages of newspapers than of carefully preparing his legal cases.

But his supporters say the trials are revenge against the judge for daring to tackle the taboo of the Franco regime, which continues to divide Spain 37 years after the end of the dictatorship.

Garzon was suspended from his duties at the National Court shortly after he opened an investigation in 2008 into the killings of more than 100,000 opponents of Franco during the 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

He has since been “exiled” — a term used by those close to him — in The Netherlands where he went to work as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Born the son of a gas station employee on October 26, 1955 in Torres, a village that sits on a mountainside in the Andalusian countryside in southwestern Spain, Garzon grew up in poverty.

He pursued his high school studies with the aid of a scholarship, then went on to study at a seminary before settling on his chosen vocation, the law.

Garzon joined the National Court in 1988 where he quickly took on sensitive cases that made headlines.

His investigations into Islamic extremism and cocaine traffickers in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region have been undermined by the courts, but he achieved undeniable success in his 22-year fight against ETA.

However it was his failed attempt in 1998 to extradite Chile’s Pinochet from Britain to Spain to stand trial for torture and human rights charges that gained him international attention.

Garzon displayed his left-wing sympathies when he was elected as a lawmaker for the Socialist Party in 1993.

His support for the party did not stop him from probing the GAL death squads that emerged in Spain’s Basque region, targeting ETA suspects, shortly after the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez came to power in 1982.

That inquiry won him praise from the right and made him enemies on the left.

Since the beginning of his career he has had many enemies. But he has never faced a backlash as strong as the one he confronted after he decided to open an inquiry into what he called the “crimes against humanity” of the Franco era.