By Elisabeth O'Leary and Teresa Larraz Mora
MADRID (Reuters) - A vain attention-seeker who thought himself above the laws he upheld? Or a valiant maverick brought down by crony politicians, business and a legal establishment threatened by his crusade for human rights?
Whichever Baltasar Garzon finally emerges from a Madrid courtroom after he went on trial this week, the Spanish magistrate who won global fame for trying - and failing - to put Augusto Pinochet in the dock thinks his career may be ruined.
A brilliant legal mind that infuriates friends and foes alike with its mix of integrity and vainglory, the 56-year-old can have little future in public office if convicted of abusing the rights of those he was investigating; he could be disbarred for up to 20 years.
But even if acquitted, he faces a further two cases and, after a furious, mudslinging debate on his character, methods and motivations, he himself believes the damage is already done.
For three decades Garzon has made a career of tackling the most difficult, complex and controversial of cases, winning notoriety as well as envy and a clutch of powerful enemies in Spain's ruling class. Politicians across the spectrum have been implicated or targeted in his investigations over the years.
He also stirred up great controversy with an attempt to order an investigation into the killing of tens of thousands of civilians during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. That ran afoul of the amnesty Spain declared in 1977 as a compromise on the path to democracy. Garzon's next trial turns on whether he overstepped his powers in that case.
However, whatever the legal argument, many voices, mainly on the left but including some conservatives, say his current predicament stems from politics, and from the fact that in his most recent investigation he sought to probe kickbacks in the People's Party (PP), which has been in power since November.
Whether driven by professional jealousy or no, his enemies in the judiciary say they are tired of what they see as his self-promotion and pursuit of controversial cases. Politicians are afraid of his refusal to play ball with them. Both are now out to gag him once and for all, Garzon's supporters argue.
On paper, the trial that began this week seeks to establish whether Garzon abused the rights of defendants by tapping conversations they conducted with their lawyers while in prison. Garzon, whose role is to investigate cases rather than sit in judgment at trials, says it was a justifiable procedure.
"Garzon (how could he!) dared to investigate the accounts of a political party," wrote lawyer and former PP member of parliament Jorge Trias in a column in left-leaning newspaper El Pais. Trias had direct access to the case.
"The judge must have over-estimated himself, and it was a good opportunity to attack him in a strange alliance between judges and politicians, aimed at doing away with the good name of the man they hated so much," he wrote.
But a columnist in conservative newspaper ABC, a staunch critic of the "super-judge," argued that Garzon was being tried purely because of the methods he used, rather than his choice of target for cases he investigated.
"The jury will tell us if he is innocent or guilty," wrote Manuel Martin Ferrand. "Garzon's problem, regardless of the trial he is facing, lies in his excesses, ... driven by his uncontrolled desire for notoriety."
Some media commentators have reveled in Garzon being cut down to size. Others bemoan the spectacle of justice apparently run mad: Garzon has been held up internationally as a shining example of brave judicial action doggedly pursuing crime, fearless of the reach of the political classes who believe themselves untouchable. Now he himself is in the dock.
Across Spain's political divide, an El Pais editorial was vehement in its criticism of the Supreme Court.
"It is worrying, as a symptom of backwards justice, that the suspected criminals succeed in putting on trial the judge who is investigating them, and all the while the judiciary is restrained in demanding they justify their evil doings."
PURSUIT OF PINOCHET
Garzon's most celebrated case was the attempt - which might have succeeded but for international political calculations - to extradite Pinochet while the retired Chilean dictator was visiting Britain and to try him for human rights abuses. That started a trend for cross-border pursuits of suspected war criminals and those accused of crimes against humanity.
Over the years, Garzon has investigated cases involving prisoners of the United States at Guantanamo Bay and those who disappeared during the 1970s dictatorship in Argentina.
But those came well after he had established a name for himself in Spain. He joined Madrid's High Court at 32, and won plaudits for a crackdown on major drug rings.
He also earned himself a place on the hit list of Basque separatist group ETA, going after them relentlessly.
Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez lured him away from the law in 1993 to run for parliament. After helping the Socialists to victory, the government put Garzon in charge of Spain's anti-drugs programme.
He quit a year later, accusing Gonzalez's administration of being soft on corruption. But political insiders point to his ambition, a recurrent theme, saying the real reason he resigned was Gonzalez's failure to deliver a promised ministerial post.
Garzon later made enemies on the left when he exposed the existence of death squads run by the Socialist government in the 1980s in its conflict with ETA, a probe credited with helping bring the centre-right to power in 1996.
Defending himself this week, Garzon told the court he had authorized the taping of conversations of defendants in custody - businessmen accused of bribing PP politicians - only because their lawyers were suspected of involvement in money laundering.
His accusers, in turn, insist that there is nothing personal in their suit: "We have no desire to make an example of Mr. Garzon," one of them, Ignacio Pelaez, a former colleague, told the court on Thursday.
"What we are asking for is that some limits be established over the courts, so that the end does not justify the means."
(Writing by Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)