Human rights judge back on trial in Spain

Judge Baltasar Garzon faces charges over investigations into Franco-era crimes and alleged violation of amnesty law.

Judge Garzon in court
Baltasar Garzon’s supporters protested outside the Supreme Court in Madrid on January 17 [EPA]

A leading human rights judge will again go on trial in Spain to face charges for abusing power while trying to investigate crimes committed by General Francisco Franco, the autocratic ruler of Spain from 1939-1975.

In the second of three trials, Judge Baltasar Garzon will appear before Madrid’s Supreme Court on Tuesday for ordering an investigation into the disappearance of about 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

The first case against Garzon, which involves accusations of illegally recording defendants and their lawyers, was heard last week and the verdict is pending. In the third case, Garzon faces allegations he dropped an investigation into the head of Spain’s biggest bank, Santander, after receiving payments for a course sponsored by the bank in New York.

Garzon, 56, was widely revered in Spain for investigations into rights abuses by the Basque separatist group ETA, and for human rights probes in Latin America. However, Garzon alienated many in Spain when he tried to investigate crimes committed by General Franco and his regime.

The charges against Garzon were not brought by the state prosecutor but by right-wing organisations “Clean Hands” and “Liberty and Identity,” who allege the judge violated a 1977 amnesty law by investigating the Franco era. The law, passed two years after Franco’s death as Spain transitioned to democracy, covers crimes of “a political nature” committed before 1976. 

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Spain to lift the 1977 amnesty law, which remains in effect today.

If convicted, Judge Garzon would not face prison but could be suspended from practicing law for up to 20 years.

Campaigning for justice

Relatives of victims of Franco, human rights advocates and international jurists will gather at the Supreme Court on Tuesday to protest the trial, which they say is an attempt to deny justice for “crimes against humanity”.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Madrid, said Garzon is a “massive figure” in Spain.

“He has been described as the most polarising figure in the country,” he said. “He has a lot of public support and is the darling of human rights groups.”

Outside Spain, Garzon is best known for ordering the arrest of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet on a visit to London in 1998. Like Franco in Spain, Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist and human rights advocates accuse the general of killing and torturing thousands in the 1970s.

“The charges should be thrown out, this is a real scandal,” Amnesty International lawyer Hugo Relva told Reuters news agency.

“How is it possible that this country is full of mass graves and no one is worried about it? In any other country, El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay or Peru, when they find a mass grave from times of political violence by the state they intervene immediately, putting money up to … indemnise victims,” Relva said.

After Franco’s right-wing Nationalists defeated the left-wing Republicans in the three-year civil war, he established an oppressive regime that curtailed rights, including freedom of speech and political organising. Dissidents and others were routinely imprisoned and tortured, many were killed. 

Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975. Many believe there are mass graves from Franco’s era that have not yet been dug up.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies