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. 

Paul White/AP/File
The illustrious and controversial career of Baltasar Garzón (wearing his judicial robes as a defendant in Spain’s Supreme Court) was effectively ended by his 11-year suspension in a wiretapping case.

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.

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."

The three cases against Garzón

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

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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