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Spain's crusading ex-judge Garzon mulls helping Snowden

Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon speaks to the media during a visit to the Chilean congress in Valparaiso city, about 121 km (75 miles)
Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon speaks to the media during a visit to the Chilean congress in Valparaiso city, about 121 km (75 miles)

By Fiona Ortiz

MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon, who made an international reputation in pursuing Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1990s, said on Monday he was considering a request from former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden for legal help.

Snowden, who exposed secret U.S. government surveillance programs in a series of leaks, left Hong Kong on Sunday to escape U.S. prosecution and the South American country of Ecuador has offered him asylum.

On Monday Snowden's whereabouts were a mystery.

Garzon is legal head of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has been helping Snowden try to reach country that would not deport him to the U.S. to face espionage charges.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is sheltered by Ecuador in its London embassy as he fights extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning in a sexual assault case. Assange says he fears Sweden would send him to the U.S., which could try to prosecute him for a massive leak of diplomatic cables.

A source close to WikiLeaks said Garzon, a well know figure in Spain, heavy-set with a swept-back mane of grey hair, was a go-between for Ecuador and Snowden.

But the Spanish jurist, in Haiti filming a documentary for his human rights foundation, said in a statement that he was still considering whether to work with Snowden.

"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," Garzon said in the e-mailed statement.

"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," he said.

SUPERJUDGE NO LONGER

Garzon, now 57, became an instant hero to human rights activists in 1998 when he achieved through legal channels the arrest of Pinochet in London, where the former Chilean military leader had traveled for medical attention.

The ex-judge's bold gambit to bring Pinochet to Spain to face human rights charges - for the kidnapping and killing of Spaniards who lived in Chile - was ultimately unsuccessful. But it forever changed the travel habits of former strongmen once accustomed to travelling the world with impunity.

At home, Garzon made his reputation in taking on Spain's toughest corruption and drug rings.

In the 1980s he pursued violent Basque separatists ETA and their political supporters. But he also challenged the government on accusations it hired death squads to go after ETA.

CIVIL WAR

His detractors portray him as an arrogant publicity seeker, accuse him of abusing his power and have brought three criminal cases against him in recent years.

Last year his Spanish judicial career effectively came to an end when the Supreme Court banned him from the bench for 11 years in one of the three cases after finding he had illegally wiretapped defense attorneys in a major corruption case.

Garzon had already been suspended from the bench since 2010 in one of the other cases, in which a right-wing organization accused him of violating a 1977 amnesty law when he reopened probes into alleged crimes under the 1936-1975 Francisco Franco dictatorship.

In a speech in May in Madrid he said the Supreme Court had lost its last chance to investigate Spain's Civil War and Franco-era crimes and to make reparations. Few witnesses are still alive and no other judge seems to have the appetite to press the case.

"As a country we haven't had the courage to confront our past," he said. "I'll never forgive the Supreme Court for what it did to Franco's victims."

Garzon now lives most of the time outside Spain and travels constantly.

After the suspension in 2010, he worked for half a year in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, advising the chief prosecutor there.

He has also advised Colombia's government on human rights issues.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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