18 month limit on inquiries will help white-collar criminals, judges warn

The judges in charge of some of Spain’s most politically sensitive judicial inquiries believe that the government’s plans to limit criminal investigations to a maximum of 18 months will open the door to impunity.

Santiago Pedraz, the dean of investigating judges at Spain’s High Court, feels that “it is not possible to carry out opportune investigations in the more complex cases, not even with a possible deadline extension of another 18 months.”

His colleague Eloy Velasco goes further and says that “putting a deadline on an investigation seems like a trap posing as a legal safeguard; it will lead to impunity, especially when it comes to investigating organised structures such as mafias or criminal gangs.”

Associations of law professionals also expressed reticence at this legal reform envisioned by the centre-right Popular Party (PP) government, whose stated goal is to ensure that cases do not drag on eternally in the courts.

The Spanish courts are currently investigating several major cases involving political corruption, such as Gürtel (the largest pre-trial probe in the history of Spain’s central criminal court, spanning over five years), Púnica and Palma Arena. All three cases involve allegedly corrupt PP officials, while the latter has also ensnared the king’s sister, Cristina de Borbón.

But Joaquín Bosch, spokesman for the progressive association Judges for Democracy, says that setting a fixed time limit for cases without fixing the problems that slow them down “is nothing but an act of propaganda,” which could cause cases to be shelved or prematurely ended.

Pablo Llarena, president of the Professional Magistrature Association (APM) and of the Provincial Court of Barcelona, feels that placing a generic limit on court investigations is a positive thing because “it was always considered necessary not to subject citizens to a profound, interfering investigation for an indefinite amount of time.” Yet even he feels that 18 months is not long enough in many cases. “You have to be very aware that a penal procedure must not end soon, so much as end well. Making a bank transfer takes seconds, but accrediting its existence on paper through tax havens is not easy – that takes time,” he says.

Judge Eloy Velasco told EL PAÍS that given the central criminal court’s current workload, “it will be impossible to meet the deadlines proposed by the government.”

“One witness leads you to another one; one suspect reveals new channels of investigation; in a way, the inquiry is sometimes unpredictable,” continues Velasco, who is a member of a conservative association of judges. “Who can say that it will be over in 18 months? This road is perverse, and it can lead us into the territory of impunity, which is not inhabited by car thieves but by white-collar criminals.”

In order to speed up particularly complex cases, Velasco suggests that judges should be fully devoted to them until their completion.

“Right now we handle several European arrest warrants a day, and deal with hundreds of court cases simultaneously,” he explains. Another way to cut back on long investigations would be to assign supporting judges at courts that get the largest cases.

Pedraz, considered a progressive judge although he is unaffiliated, notes that “a judge has the greatest interest in dealing with the investigation quickly,” yet he also feels that 18 months is not enough.

“It’s not even a problem of resources, which are definitely necessary, but a problem with obtaining and analysing information. Any complex case requires documentation that will serve as a basis to accredit the existence of a crime. It’s not enough with statements by witnesses and suspects, which generally do not take very long to obtain.”

Long investigations, Pedraz explains, often require wiretaps over the course of six months, and analysis by technicians and experts. Selecting these experts, who are usually two public servants from the Tax Agency, Bank of Spain or other relevant bodies, takes some time. These experts may request further documents. Defendants may also demand further documentation or produce a counter-report.

“Quite often we also need to ask for international assistance through letters rogatory, and become dependent on the other country, which represents another delay,” adds Pedraz, who is skeptical about the possibility of greater international cooperation “given the existence of tax havens and other uncooperative countries.”

About Richard Lawson

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