Spanish judge defends probe of possible war crimes

By Daniel Woolls

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon arrives at the Supreme Court in Madrid, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. Garzon known for pioneering cross-border justice cases is sitting in the dock as a criminal defendant for allegedly overstepping his jurisdiction with a probe of right wing atrocities during and after the Spanish civil war.

Arturo Rodriguez, Associated Press

MADRID — The Spanish judge known for his investigations of alleged crimes against humanity took the stand Tuesday in his own trial, defiantly rejecting charges that he had overstepped his jurisdiction by probing right-wing atrocities linked to the Spanish civil war.

In a case that has divided Spain like no other, the man credited with promoting the concept that some crimes are so heinous they can be pursued across national borders sat accused by right-wing groups in his native country. Even Spanish prosecutors say he should not have been charged — but a conviction could end his judicial career.

The judge, Baltasar Garzon, removed his flowing black judge's robe before taking his place Tuesday in the ornate chamber of the Spanish Supreme Court, a stone's throw from another courthouse where Garzon achieved rock star status among rights groups over the past decade.

Both sides in the 1936-39 Spanish civil war — in which right-wing forces led by Gen. Francisco Franco rose up against a leftist, Republican government and eventually won — committed atrocities. But the Franco dictatorship carried out a thorough accounting of civilians killed by anti-Franco militia — and no government agency one has done so for the deaths or disappearances of more than 100,000 civilians at the hands of Franco supporters.

The seven-judge panel overseeing Garzon's trial began the session by announcing it had rejected defense motions to have the case thrown out, on grounds questioning the partiality of the judge who indicted Garzon in 2010.

Garzon declined to take questions from his accusers, which are two right-wing groups. This is a quirk of Spanish law: private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.

In Spain, Garzon is highly divisive: while rights groups love him, many conservatives brand Garzon an unabashed publicity hound partial to leftist causes. Many in Spain think Garzon is being punished by fellow judges because of his celebrity status or for reopening old wounds some say are best left be.

At Tuesday's session, Garzon engaged in a carefully orchestrated, legalese-filled back and forth with his defense attorney, Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda, on the investigation that Garzon began in 2006 and dropped in 2008 in a dispute over jurisdiction.

Garzon said his probe was not about right vs. left on an issue that's still sensitive even though the war ended 70 years ago.

"It is not a question of ideologies," Garzon said. "Here, there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of victims whose rights have not been addressed."

Garzon recalled myriad dates and resolutions he issued in a sometimes dry exchange that contrasted sharply with the potent drama of the moment: the only judge who dared probe the killing or forced disappearance of what he said were more than 100,000 civilians at the hands of Franco supporters was sitting in court, charged with a crime for doing so and facing the end of his career if convicted.

Garzon reiterated his argument that, under the body of international law that has accumulated since the Spanish civil war, the atrocities could not be covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain tried to move forward and restore democracy two years after the death of Franco.

He insisted killings and disappearances of civilians at the hands of Franco supporters during and in the years right after the war were systematic and thus a crime against humanity, and that his probe was justified,

"I did what I thought I had to do," Garzon said of his abortive investigation, which ultimately lasted just a month.

He said many of the crimes he probed, such as forced disappearances, were "permanent" ongoing ones because no bodies were found and relatives were thus denied the right to give their loved ones a proper burial.

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