Europe

Spain's Franco-era probe judge Baltasar Garzon on trial

  • 24 January 2012
  • From the section Europe
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A high-profile Spanish judge has gone on trial accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law by investigating civil war and Franco-era crimes.

Baltasar Garzon is accused by two right-wing groups of overstepping his powers by trying to prosecute crimes committed between 1936 and 1975.

The case has reignited the debate about the way Spain has dealt with its past.

Mr Garzon's defence has called for the case to be dropped - a move backed by public prosecutors.

Under Spanish law, private citizens can try to bring criminal charges against a person even if prosecutors disagree.

But Mr Garzon's lawyer, Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda argued on Tuesday that the case should be dropped as there was no "directly harmed" party involved - and public prosecutor Luis Navajas agreed, asking "that the trial be shelved".

Madrid's Supreme Court - the only court in Spain able to hear a case against a judge - is expected to rule on the motions in the next few days.

This is one of three prosecutions brought by private parties against the 56-year-old judge.

If convicted at any of the trials, he could be suspended from the legal profession for up to 20 years.

'Re-opened wounds'

Judge Garzon is a controversial figure, who divides opinion in Spain, correspondents say.

He gained a global reputation for his investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed around the world - initiating the arrest in the UK of former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet in 1998 and indicting Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda suspects in 2003.

But to his critics, he is a left-wing busybody obsessed with self-promotion.

His decision in 2008 to investigate the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during the Franco era, including ordering the excavation of mass graves, provoked fierce criticism and anger.

Clean Hands and Liberty and Identity, the two organisations which brought Tuesday's prosecution, said he should have heeded the amnesty agreed in 1977, two years after General Franco's death, as the country moved towards democracy.

"Without doubt Judge Garzon has reopened wounds which we Spaniards - whatever our political beliefs - had totally recovered from," Miguel Bernard Ramon, of Clean Hands, told the BBC.

But many of the relatives of those who disappeared during the civil war and the subsequent dictatorship of General Francisco Franco have pinned their hopes for justice on Judge Garzon - and were among those demonstrating in his defence outside the court in Madrid.

Judge Garzon himself has said that the atrocities committed during that time amounted to crimes against humanity and therefore are not subject to an amnesty.

Paradox

If the trial continues, the defence has called some 22 witnesses to testify for the families of victims.

"For the first time those people will be able to tell before a court what the dictatorship did to them," Emilio Silva, President of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, told the AFP news agency.

The trial has been condemned by human rights groups.

Reed Brody, a lawyer with the US-based group Human Rights Watch, said it was paradoxical that Judge Garzon should be put on trial for pursuing the crimes of dictatorship in his own country.

"Do the victims of Franco have less rights than the victims of Pinochet?" he said.

Last week Judge Garzon was in court on charges of illegally authorising police to bug the conversations of lawyers with clients.

He denied wrongdoing and said he had always sought to protect detainees' right to a fair defence.

His third trial, for which no date has been set, involves allegations that he took bribes.

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