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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. 

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The three cases against Garzón

Garzón was charged in three separate cases in May 2010 for intentionally abusing his power to subvert justice.

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The first was for ignoring the amnesty law and reopening the investigation of Franco-era crimes; the second for dropping charges against a banker, allegedly in exchange for payments for a series of lectures; and the third was for wiretapping conversations between lawyers and their clients in prison while investigating a corruption ring involving high-ranking Popular Party officials. The Supreme Court ruled Garzón was guilty in the wiretapping case.

He is in the process of appealing the decision, but many say rehearing his case is highly unlikely in Spain.

The amnesty law case was the last to be decided. Garzón argued that because the crimes were against humanity, he was within the law to investigate them for the same reason that he had been allowed to investigate human rights violations worldwide.

On Feb. 27, the court acquitted him, ruling that while Garzón was wrong to pursue the abuses because doing so violated the amnesty law passed by parliament, he did not break the law "intentionally." The victims had every right to demand the truth about where their relatives are buried, the judges acknowledged, but the courts could not act as a truth commission like those elsewhere.

Although Garzón was rebuked for his investigation, the ruling left the door open to further investigation by suggesting that parliament could overturn or reform the amnesty law.

Little desire to reopen wounds

It's all but impossible for that to happen anytime soon. The Popular Party, which has accused Garzón of using his post to pursue a political agenda, is in power for almost four more years. More important, society is in no rush to seek justice.

In a 2008 survey, almost 45 percent of Spaniards opposed an independent commission investigating civil war crimes; 39 percent supported it. The split is 42 percent to 40 percent when it comes to investigating Franco-era crimes. The same survey, though, also showed 50 percent support for identifying buried remains, with 27 percent against.

"The vast majority of Spaniards accept that an amnesty was just the price to pay for democracy," says José Álvarez Junco, one of Spain's most respected historians. "Garzón didn't accomplish much, other than media upheaval. Things are still where he left them."

Few victims and victimizers from that decades-ago period are still alive. While most agree that the identities of those still buried will eventually be discovered, it seems increasingly unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted.

Garzón's verdict, while a setback to those who want to pursue the Franco-era crimes, is just part of the process, says Mr. Silva, whose father's remains were the first to be positively identified by DNA testing.

"Justice doesn't come easy," he says. "We will exhaust all instances to get the truth and this was one of them."

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