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Garzón's quest for justice crosses a red line in Spain

Judge Baltasar Garzón raised hackles in Spain when he began investigating civil war and Franco-era crimes, ignoring an amnesty law. The effort has effectively ended his career – but started a long-stifled conversation. 

By Correspondent / March 10, 2012


Spain's crusading judge Baltasar Garzón took on drug lords, Basque terrorists, state-sponsored paramilitaries, South American dictators, and US officials accused of torture. But nothing, not even his legal bravado, could fend off a Supreme Court verdict last month that ended his career as an international judge.

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Judge Garzón, to many a global human rights champion, crossed what many Spanish politicians considered a red line when, in 2008, he began investigating crimes committed during Spain's 1930s civil war and the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco that followed. Many Spaniards, not just politicians, prefer to keep those abuses in the past for the sake of national reconciliation.

The country's political forces agreed in 1977 that "forgive and forget" was the only option, lest a liberal versus conservative conflict be renewed. Immunity – to some, impunity – was considered the price to pay for democracy. Garzón was breaking decades of consensus.

The Supreme Court ruled that Garzón violated that amnesty law by launching his investigation.

His decades-old ties to the liberal Socialist Party didn't help his case. The ruling conservative Popular Party has attacked Garzón, who has a reputation for being an arrogant showman, for using his post to pursue his own agenda.

Garzón was suspended in 2010, pending three separate criminal investigations, including violating the amnesty law. Last month, he was found guilty in one case and barred from any public post for 11 years, effectively ending his 22-year career.

But while the judge paid for his bold investigation with his illustrious, if controversial, career, he may have succeeded in instigating a reckoning that has been a long time in coming. In the course of trying one of the cases against him, the Supreme Court became the first court to hear testimony from victims of Spain's civil war (1936-39) and the Franco regime's purge.

Digging up the past

At least 100,000 deaths from that era remain unresolved, with most of the dead buried in unmarked mass graves. After Franco's death in 1975, amid Spain's subsequent democratic transition, the country sought to put its tumultuous past to rest with a 1977 law granting amnesty to those who committed crimes during the war and under the Franco regime.

But the past began to resurface this century as relatives began to dig up remains. In 2006, the Asso­cia­tion for the Recovery for Historical Memory, which leads forensic research on mass graves, filed a suit forcing an investigation. It landed in Garzón's lap.

"After so many years trying to get the truth, even bad news is good news," says Emilio Silva, president of the organization, which has identified the remains of 5,400 people. "The silence is broken. This is positive for our struggle. It's the first time in history that a court has heard the testimonies of victims of these crimes, even if it was in a trial against Garzón."


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