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Spanish judge testifies at his own trial over inquiries into Franco era atrocities

Baltasar Garzon defiantly rejected charges he overstepped his jurisdiction by probing right wing atrocities during and after the Spanish civil war.

Baltasar Garzon at a press conference in Madrid last year.
Baltasar Garzon at a press conference in Madrid last year.
Image: Arturo Rodriguez/AP/Press Association Images

THE SPANISH JUDGE known for pioneering cross-border justice in cases of alleged crimes against humanity sat in the dock as a criminal defendant today.

Baltasar Garzon defiantly rejected charges he overstepped his jurisdiction by probing right wing atrocities during and after the Spanish civil war.

Garzon removed his flowing black judge’s robe before taking his place behind a small table in the ornate main chamber of the Spanish Supreme Court, a stone’s throw from another courthouse where Garzon achieved rock star status among rights groups over the past decade.

The session began with the seven-judge panel overseeing the trial announcing it had rejected defence motions seeking to have the case thrown out, on grounds including alleged partiality by the judge who indicted Garzon in 2010.

Garzon declined to take questions from his accusers, which are two right wing groups. Prosecutors say he committed no crime. This is a quirk of Spanish law: private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.

Indicted bin Laden

Garzon is perhaps best-known for indicting the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, having him arrested while Pinochet visited London in an ultimately failed bid to bring him to Madrid for trial.

He also indicted Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction — the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be tried anywhere — Garzon and colleagues at the National Court have gone after rulers and officials from such disparate, far-flung places as Israel and Rwanda.

Human rights groups have also hailed Garzon for ushering in an era in which victims of systematic crimes such as abuses under former military regimes in Latin America, for instance, were inspired to come forth to demand justice and demand the repeal of amnesty laws.

At today’s session, Garzon engaged in a carefully orchestrated and often dry, legalese-filled back and forth with his defence attorney, Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda, on the investigation Garzon began in 2006 and dropped in 2008 in a dispute over jurisdiction.

Both sides in the 1936-39 Spanish war — in which right wing forces led by Gen. Francisco Franco rose up against a leftist, Republican government and eventually won — committed atrocities.

But the Franco regime carried out a thorough accounting of non-combatants killed by anti-Franco militia.

Not covered by amnesty

Garzon recalled a number of dates and resolutions he issued in an exchange that seemed out of sync with the drama of the moment: the only judge who dared launch a formal and unprecedented probe of the killing or forced disappearance of what he said were more than 100,000 civilians at the hands of Franco supporters was sitting in court, charged with a crime for doing so and facing the end of his career, albeit not jail time, if convicted.

Garzon reiterated his argument that, under the body of international law that has accumulated since the Spanish civil war, the atrocities could not be covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain tried to move forward and restore democracy, two years after the death of Franco.

He said many of the crimes he probed, such as forced disappearances, were “permanent” because no bodies were found and relatives were thus denied the right to give their loved ones a proper burial. ”Their effects go on in time,” Garzon argued.

He insisted killing and disappearances of civilians at the hands of Franco supporters during and in the years right after the war were systematic and thus a crime against humanity, and that his probe was justified — despite the additional argument by the plaintiffs that the crimes were covered by Spain’s statute of limitations.

“I did what I thought I had to do,” Garzon said.

The judge was tried earlier this month for overstepping his jurisdiction by ordering jailhouse wiretaps in a corruption probe. He is also being probed for his ties with a bank that financed seminars he oversaw in New York while on sabbatical in 2005 and 2006.

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Associated Press

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