Madrid: The Spanish judge who became an international human rights hero went on trial Tuesday for daring to probe right-wing atrocities around the Spanish civil war that may be linked to the deaths or disappearances of more than 100,000 civilians.
It is the second trial in as many weeks for the 56-year-old Baltasar Garzon, although the charges at the Supreme Court are essentially the same: that he knowingly exceeded the bounds of his authority.
Last week he stood trial for ordering jailhouse wiretaps in a corruption investigation. In this case he has been indicted for investigating more than 100,000 civilians deaths and disappearances at the hands of supporters of the late dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.
The crimes took place during and after Spain's 1936-39 civil war, which brought Franco to power.
Such crimes were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain moved to restore democracy after Franco's death in 1975, but Garzon investigated anyway. He argued that crimes involving missing persons cannot be covered by amnesty and that the killings and disappearances amounted to a crime against humanity by the Franco regime and such atrocities have no statute of limitations.
Spaniards are highly divided over Garzon — he has rock star status among rights groups but conservatives deride him as being more interested in fame than in justice.
Human rights group say it is appalling that Garzon — who has pioneered universal jurisdiction, or the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere — is being put on trial at home for daring to probe what is arguably Spain's biggest unresolved human rights case. They say he is being targeted by Spanish right-wingers and it would be a tremendous embarrassment and setback for the Spanish justice system if he is convicted.
About 100 pro-Garzon demonstrators rallied outside the Supreme Court before the trial started, chanting "Garzon, our friend, the people are with you!"
Tuesday's session was taken up by procedural motions filed by Garzon's lawyer. The trial then recessed until Jan. 31 when Garzon is scheduled to testify.
The case has been brought because of a complaint filed by two right-wing groups, even though government prosecutors themselves say Garzon did nothing wrong and should be acquitted. This is a quirk of Spanish penal law — private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.
One key motion filed Tuesday by Garzon's attorney Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda sought to have the whole case thrown out on the grounds that the magistrate who indicted Garzon in 2010 was biased against him.
Magistrate Luciano Varela helped one of the right-wing groups with court papers it had to file as it sought the charges against Garzon, to the point where the group ended up cutting and pasting entire paragraphs from previous documents filed by Varela himself, the attorney said.
"They didn't even bother to correct the spelling mistakes," Martinez-Fresneda said.
The Supreme Court will take a few days to rule on the motions.
Asked how the day's proceedings went, Garzon told reporters "Just fine."
After Garzon testifies, the defense is expected to summon as witnesses people who lost relatives to pro-Franco militia. Human rights groups say this will be unprecedented in a Spanish court.
If he is found guilty, Garzon — who was already suspended from his job at the National Court in 2010 — can be removed from the bench for up to 20 years. That would effectively end his career.
The verdict in the first trial could come during this one. In that case, Garzon faces up to 17 years off the bench.
For many in Spain, the trials — and a third case in which Garzon is being probed for his dealings with a big Spanish bank — amount to a witch hunt aimed at punishing Garzon for his status as judicial celebrity who indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2003.
Emilio Silva, head of a group that spearheads efforts to help people find the remains of relatives who went missing during the Spanish civil war, is amazed at the Garzon trial.
"It is a paradox that someone who tried to help families who have the biggest problem you can have — a forced disappearance — has to go before a court to answer for it," Silva said. "It is sad and especially sad for the families."
First Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2012, 23:02