Baltasar Garzon’s trial puts spotlight on Spain’s years of war and dictatorship


BRUSSELS, Belgium — Spain re-opened the wounds of its bloody 20th century Tuesday by putting on trial a crusading human rights judge for investigating atrocities carried out during the 1930s Civil War and the almost four decades of dictatorship that followed.

Judge Baltasar Garzon hit headlines around the world in 1998 when he secured the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London under an international arrest warrant for human rights charges.

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Although the British eventually released Pinochet, the case launched a spate of “universal jurisdiction” cases. Garzon has also sought to indict Al Qaeda terror suspects, officials of Argentina’s 1970s military regime as well as leading high-profile cases against drugs rings and domestic terror groups in Spain.

However, critics say he overstepped the mark by investigating crimes committed under the rule of Gen. Francisco Franco, the victor of the Spanish Civil War who ran a right-wing dictatorship in Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975.

They say Garzon violated an amnesty law adopted in 1977 as Spain was in transition towards democratic rule. He has also been accused of taking bribes and ordering illegal wire taps.

“Garzon symbolizes those judges who have seriously damaged the institution of the judiciary by taking judicial measures in a sectarian manner, favoring certain political interests,” said statement from Manos Limpias, one of the rightist groups which brought the case against the judge.

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About 300 people taking the opposite view protested outside the Madrid Supreme Court as Garzon arrived for his trial.

“The crime is to hide the crime,” said one banner held by a protester demanding investigation of the Franco era, when around 100,000 people are believed to have died or disappeared. Many of the protesters carried photographs of parents or grandparents.

“My father was shot on Nov. 25, 1936. His only crime was to be a member of the Socialist party,” Julia Merino told the El Pais newspaper. “My mother died of grief. He was 29 and she was 27. I’m here because they want to get Garzon, and I think it’s shameful.”

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Despite almost 40 years of democracy, the ghosts of the civil war and the Franco years still haunt Spain, causing deep divisions in politics and society.

A law introduced in 2007 by the previous Socialist government to recognize the victims of the civil war and the Franco regime, ban political rallies at Franco’s mausoleum and grant Spanish nationality to the descendents of those who fled the dictatorship, provoked bitter debate. The current conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy opposed it as needlessly raking up the past.

Supporters of Garzon counter that only by a proper investigation of the past can Spain put its ghosts to rest.

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