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Worried Washington had eyes on Garzón

Maverick magistrate monitored over Guantánamo probe, cables reveal

The American Embassy in Madrid has been keeping a close eye on the High Court, and in particular on the judges and attorneys involved in US-related issues. Secret documents leaked by Wikileaks show that one of the magistrates under closest surveillance was Baltasar Garzón, above all because of the possibility he might open legal proceedings against US officials for the torture of prisoners at the Guantánamo detention center.

Garzón is currently suspended from his duties while the courts decide whether he overreached his authority in attempting to investigate Franco-era crimes. In the last 20 years he has been the scourge of ETA, drug traffickers and participants in the dirty war against terrorism. He toyed briefly with politics when he ran for the Socialist Party in the legislative elections of 1993, under former Prime Minister Felipe González. He became world famous after issuing an arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

The fact that Garzón was sniffing around Guantánamo made the US nervous

Garzón clearly has an anti-American streak," reads one of the cables

Washington first became concerned in 2004 when the Spanish police, following Garzón's orders, requested permission to interrogate two inmates at Guantánamo (the Libyan Omar Amer Deghayes and the Palestinian Jamil Abdul Latif El Banna). The request was linked to his investigation into Eddin Barakat Yarkas, aka Abu Dahdah, who was arrested in Spain in November 2001. Abu Dahdah allegedly recruited both inmates, and was an important figure in Islamist terrorism circles, according to cable 14107. Garzón had opened a case against both prisoners for their participation in Al Qaeda activities, as well as against two other inmates, Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmad (known as "The Spanish Taliban") and Lahcen Ikassrien, whom Spanish police had interrogated in Guantánamo.

On February 13, 2004, the cabinet approved Garzón's request to seek the extradition of Deghayes and El Banna. This decision coincided with the delivery of The Spanish Taliban to Spanish courts by the US.

The fact that Garzón was trying to sniff around the legal limbo that was Guantánamo made the US administration nervous. Nevertheless, the US executive provided the judge with information that enabled him to arrest eight alleged Islamists in October 2004, thwarting their plans to blow up the High Court.

"The arrests were partly based on information provided by the government of the United States," notes the confidential cable 21797. This diplomatic note added that the arrests were a significant success for the US as well as for Garzón, who was described as a particularly aggressive judge who likes to shine.

Since the Deghayes and El Banna affair was still unresolved by September 2007, the embassy contacted the High Court's chief prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, who expressed doubts over existing evidence against the former Guantánamo detainees requested by Garzón. The cable notes that this was the same judge who had prosecuted The Spanish Taliban and Lahcen Ikassrien, both of whom were acquitted in 2006 because evidence gathered in Guantánamo lacked legal value. Cable 122552 says that Garzón "had a field day in the Spanish press criticizing Guantánamo" and that if the cases of Deghayes and El Banna fell apart, "the publicity-seeking Garzón would not think twice about following a similar tack."

It does not seem like a coincidence that in December 2007, Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre met with Garzón, who admitted that he did not always agree with US counterterrorism methods. Following the meeting, cable 135369 summed up the situation thus: "He clearly has an anti-American streak (as evidenced by occasional scathing editorials in the Spanish press criticizing Guantánamo and aspects of what he calls the 'US-led war on terror'), and we are certainly under no illusions about the individual with whom we are dealing. There is a very good chance that his documentary next month will indeed be a hatchet job on the US. However, Garzón has also doggedly pursued many important terrorist cases and there have been and will continue to be numerous areas where our interests overlap."

Misgivings over Garzón reached a high point in 2009, when he attempted to prosecute six high-ranking officials from the Bush administration in connection with six Guantánamo detainees who were Spanish citizens or residents. The embassy, like it had in the past, asked High Court chief prosecutor Zaragoza for assistance.

The accusation, brought by a group of lawyers in Spain, targeted the legal advisers of the Bush administration who had designed the legal framework for Guantánamo, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. On March 28, the media reported that Garzón had reopened the case by asking the attorney's office whether he should accept the suit or not. In order to stop this initiative from making headway, the Embassy pressured members of the Spanish government and especially the attorney's office, which confidential cables show provided support and advice.

The Embassy papers also pick up on a curious episode: Washington's refusal to assign two bodyguards to Garzón in 2005, when he spent nine months as a guest lecturer at New York University. While the Spanish executive assigned two security officers to guard Garzón during his stay, US authorities said that "due to extreme demand on DSS [security service] manpower, it was unlikely that two DSS Agents could be provided full time, and that it was also unlikely that even a single agent could be dedicated for nine months to this detail."

Garzón and other colleagues were also the subject of a tenacious diplomatic battle to end their "irritating" fixation with universal jurisdiction, especially in connection with attempts to prosecute Bush administration officials. Since 2006, the US made great efforts to prevent Spain from becoming "the world's guardian." Universal jurisdiction was a nightmare for Washington. A report about the case of CIA rendition flights over Spain (cable 91121) alerted that "we have already seen in similar cases that Spanish judges fiercely guard their independence and are willing to break new ground on issues of jurisdiction."

In mid-2009, the Embassy recommended putting pressure on the influential Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba over the Guantánamo issue, and to let him know that "it is not useful" for good bilateral relations. Finally, following Israeli pressure after the High Court initiated a case over crimes in Gaza, Spain passed legislation last year curtailing universal jurisdiction.