Spanish judge on trial for probing into Franco-era atrocities

Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon (pictured) went on trial Tuesday for trying to prosecute atrocities under long-time dictator General Francisco Franco. The prosecution argues that the alleged crimes were covered by a 1977 amnesty.


AFP - A Spanish judge famous for pursuing Latin American dictators went on trial Tuesday accused of abuse of power for trying to prosecute atrocities under General Francisco Franco.

About 200 supporters of Judge Baltasar Garzon gathered outside Madrid's Supreme Court as the case against him for ordering an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain's 1936-39 civil war and Franco's subsequent dictatorship started being heard.

Many held up large black and white photos of family members who were killed during the Franco regime as they chanted: "Garzon, friend, the people are with you."

The 56-year-old judge is charged with exceeding his powers on the grounds that the alleged crimes were covered by an amnesty agreed in 1977 as Spain moved towards democracy two years after Franco's death.

Garzon, who gained fame by pursuing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, argues that the acts were crimes against humanity and therefore not subject to the amnesty agreed by Spain's main political parties.

If convicted he would not go to prison but could be suspended from the legal profession for up to 20 years, putting an end to his career.

Among those due to speak at the trial are 22 witnesses called by the defence to testify for the families of victims, many of them buried in unmarked mass graves across the country.

The trial is expected to last a month or more.

Garzon's detractors, mainly from Spain's right, accuse him of opening old wounds with his bid to probe crimes from the Franco era and of seeking the media spotlight by repeatedly taking on high-profile cases.

His backers argue that the trial, along with a separate case heard last week at the Supreme Court over illegal wiretapping in a corruption case, are acts of revenge against the judge for daring to tackle the taboos of the Franco regime.

The Supreme Court has not yet issued its verdict in the wiretapping trial, which wrapped up on Thursday. If convicted in that case Garzon could be suspended from the legal profession for 17 years.

"I think he is a brave judge," said 47-year-old Mercedes del Vas whose grandmother and two other relatives were killed by Franco's forces.

"He is the only one who has dared to investigate the Franco crimes. He is in court and the assassins are in the street," she added as she took part in the protest in defence of Garzon outside the court.

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticised the trial and top Spanish artists such as Oscar-winning film director Pedro Almodovar have expressed support for Garzon.

"To open criminal proceedings for launching an investigation into human rights violations that took place in the past in this country is from the point of view of Amnesty International simply scandalous and unacceptable," said Hugo Relvas, a legal adviser with Amnesty International, on the eve of the trial.

After the civil war the Franco regime routinely rounded up suspected opponents as it sought to consolidate power. Many faced firing squads and were dumped in hundreds of unmarked graves.

Garzon came to international prominence in 1998 when he ordered the extradition of Pinochet from Britain to face charges of human rights abuses.

The judge has also pursued members of the former dictatorship in Argentina, indicted Osama bin Laden and probed abuses at the US prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Garzon was suspended from his duties at the National Court, Spain's top criminal court, in May 2010 and currently works as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

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