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


Baltasar Garzon has dressed in his own judge's robes for his appearances in the dock

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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".

Charges against Garzon

  • Violating the Franco-era amnesty law
  • Illegally authorising police to record conversations of lawyers with their clients
  • Dropping an investigation into the head of Spain's biggest bank, Santander, after receiving payments for a course sponsored by the bank

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.


Judge Garzon's trial has shocked some outside of Spain. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called it a "serious attack on democracy".

But, in Spain, the trial forms part of a complex debate over whether the country should investigate the crimes of the past.

Manos Limpias, or Clean Hands, the group that launched the prosecution against him, is among those on the Spanish right who think the 1977 amnesty should be respected. They see Baltasar Garzon as a "judge of the left".

Then there are the hundreds of mainly elderly people outside the Supreme Court, supporting Judge Garzon. Some had relatives who disappeared under Franco, others were members of the Spanish political left. The main word on their banners is "justice".

In so many ways, Spain has moved on from that era. However, the outcome of this trial, decided by Supreme Court judges, will be an important moment for the country and its relationship with its past.

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.


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

Spanish Civil War

  • On 18 July 1936, Spain's military - backed by Nazi Germany - attacked the democratically-elected government
  • It led to three years of Civil War and four decades of fascist dictatorship under Gen Francisco Franco
  • The war came to be seen as a battle between communism and fascism
  • It drew thousands of foreign volunteers, fighting on both sides
  • About 250,000 people died during the conflict
  • An amnesty in 1977, two years after Franco's death, ruled out public airing of events during that time
  • But families of some 114,000 who disappeared during those years have become increasingly vocal about wanting answers

"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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  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I think this proves the power that Franco's supporters still have in Spain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    There are also relatives of the 'international brigades' who would like to know what happened to their relations when they fought in Spain. I met a lady at the museu de la guerra in Gandesa and it would mean so much to her and the memory of her mother to know what became of Joe Harkins, who died near Gandesa, his body was never recovered. and never will be unless people take a stance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    "Judge Garzon has said that atrocities committed during that time amounted to crimes against humanity & therefore are not subject to an amnesty." I tend to agree with this.
    Garzon was suspended from his duties at the National Court, Spain’s top criminal court, in May 2010; he currently works as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which seems a good post for him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    As always the right wing in Spain claims that this country has "Moved Forward". I found many of them here in Madrid. I wonder what would happen if any of their lost relatives was still buried in some nameless grave? Would they also say "Let's not compromise the peace we have achieved." Families have the right to give their relatives proper burial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Copy from AI web

    Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists and the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory will condemn the trial against judge Baltasar Garzon

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    After civil war, Franco Regime routinely rounded up suspected opponents. Many faced firing squads & were dumped in hundreds of unmarked graves. Garzon came to prominence in 1998 when he ordered extradition of Pinochet from Britain to face human rights abuses. Garzon has also pursued members of former dictatorship in Argentina, indicted Osama bin Laden & probed abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The question seems to be let it rest and forget. But did Garzon open a wound or is that wound already open there seems to be a lot of people in support of Garzon. How many people are there supporting him silently ? Possibly more important than Justice is knowing where your loved ones are ? Right or left.

    Seeking justice is not trying to place a blame on one or the other just finding justice

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    UN Commission for Human Rights: "In addition, amnesties may not restrict the right of victims of violations of human rights or of war crimes to an effective remedy and reparations; nor may they impede either victims’ or societies’ right to know the truth about such violations."

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    UN Commission for Human Rights: "amnesties that prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be legally responsible for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights are inconsistent with States’ obligations under various sources of international law as well as with United Nations policy."

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Some human rights organisations, e.g. Amnesty International & Human Rights Watch, have criticised trial.
    Some top Spanish artists such as Oscar-winning film director Pedro Almodovar have expressed support for Garzon.
    Hugo Relvas, legal adviser, Amnesty International, said to open criminal proceedings into human rights violations that took place in the past is simply scandalous & unacceptable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    One quick correction to previous comment, PSOE is not a party with radical ideology, it's Spain's version of the Labour Party and was in Govt. unitl last year.
    Unfortunately Spain will always be divided by this until there is some sort of recognition and reconciliation; Clean Hands are living in a fantasy world if they think Spain has recovered from the Civil War.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Garcon backers argue trial - along with separate case heard last week at Supreme Court over illegal wiretapping in corruption case - are acts of revenge against the judge for daring to tackle the taboos of Franco Regime. Supreme Court has not yet issued its verdict in wiretapping trial. If convicted in that case Garzon could be suspended from the legal profession for 17 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I know of a psychologist who would charge a bit, and his thoughts would be "let go"

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I believe that Justice and political interests should be apart, a man who has openly been in the lists of a party with radical ideology like the PSOE is saying a lot about himself. I see many left wing and liberally minded people blogging here. Mr. Garzon has done great things, but now he is being judged for the mistakes he has made as a judge, not only for 1 or 2 causes, let's be fare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    How can judge abuse power for trying to prosecute atrocities?
    About 200 supporters of Judge Baltasar Garzon gathered outside Madrid’s Supreme Court. Case against him: ordering an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. Many held up large black & white photos of the disappeared. They chanted: “Garzon, friend, the people are with you.”

  • Comment number 26.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The problem is if you promise people amnesty for peace, then go back on it later, in future when you try and bring peace you wont be able to.

    We need an internation treaty that protect people who give up power in exchange for amnesty or our desire for justice will lead to dictators fighting to the death, with genocide become the norm as a result.

    It's the lesser of 2 evils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    JuliaC - I know atrocities were committed on both sides. Both sides are now free to ask where their loved ones are buried. Do you really think that if Garzón were to investigate crimes against the priesthood he'd say "No, sorry, wrong side"? Nobody is asking anyone to take sides and these crimes can be investigated today precisely because it is felt that Spain learnt that lesson a long time ago.


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