Feature

Spain: Prosecuting a judge who championed victims

Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who pursued criminals from other countries, will be tried this summer for investigating the abuses of the Franco era in contravention of a 1977 amnesty law.

Spain should be ashamed by the prosecution—the persecution, really—of Baltasar Garzón, said Madrid’s El País in an editorial. The 54-year-old magistrate, known for his dogged pursuit of torturers and criminals around the world, now finds himself in the dock—suspended from his job at the National Court and due to be tried in the Supreme Court this summer. His offense? Attempting to investigate atrocities carried out during the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, in contravention of a 1977 amnesty law. If found guilty, Garzón could be barred for 20 years, which would effectively end his career and dash forever the hopes of the relatives of Franco’s missing victims.

It’s about time Garzón got his “comeuppance,” said The Wall Street Journal Europe. His “shtick” is wearing thin. Most famous for trying to collar Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet while on a visit to Britain, this “hyperactive” judge has since gone after everyone from Osama bin Laden to Argentine military officers and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Last year he even launched proceedings against former officials of the Bush administration, investigating them for so-called war crimes. Garzón’s attempts to exploit the principle of “universal jurisdiction”—claiming that he had the power as a judge to indict individuals from other states if they were deemed to have committed crimes against humanity—have usually failed, seldom adding up to more than “a lot of ruined travel plans.” But they have proved “a recipe for legal anarchy and international discord.” The charges against him are that he overreached his jurisdiction and used the courts as “a political platform for his own glory.” Based on his record, that sounds about right.

Garzón’s headline-hogging certainly irritated his colleagues, said José María Calleja in Badajoz’s Hoy, and none more than Luciano Varela, the investigating judge, who filed the indictment against him. Varela helped Garzón’s accusers—including a right-wing group that the latter was investigating for corruption—make their case, before rushing to a damning preliminary judgment. The case against Garzón is dubious at best, said Eva Joly in Paris’ Le Nouvel Observateur. The amnesty over the abuses of the Franco era made some sense in 1977, when Spain was only just emerging from the traumas of Franco’s dictatorship. But it is incompatible with today’s human-rights law, and Madrid has repeatedly come under pressure to amend it. Garzón was courageously pushing Spain to come to terms with a terrible past that it has long ignored, in particular the murder of 114,000 political opponents. Muzzling him will put that process back a generation.

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