Spain's top judge in court for Franco-era crimes probe

10th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Baltasar Garzon appeared before the supreme court to face accusations that he had overstepped his authority by investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of people during 1936-39 civil war and Franco-era.

Madrid – Spain's leading investigative judge Baltasar Garzon appeared before the supreme court Wednesday to answer allegations he exceeded his authority in opening a probe into Franco-era crimes.

The judge, known around the world for his campaigns against former Latin American dictators, refused to answer questions from lawyers for the right-wing group that brought the complaint during the hearing, which lasted two and a half hours, judicial sources said.

They said he responded only to questions from the prosecutor, from his own lawyer and the judge, Luciano Varela.

Garzon, 54, left the court without making any statement to waiting journalists.

The Supreme Court last May admitted the complaint against Garzon from the organisation Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), despite a request from prosecutors for it to be dropped.

Manos Limpias accused the judge of overstepping his authority in October 2008 when he agreed to investigate the disappearances of tens of thousands of people during the 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

As part of the investigation into a divisive period of Spanish history, he ordered the opening of mass graves thought to hold the remains of victims of Franco's forces.

Public prosecutors opposed Garzon's probe, arguing it violated an amnesty agreed by political parties in the spirit of national reconciliation in 1977, two years after Franco's death, for crimes committed under the general's rule.

In November 2008, Garzon announced he was dropping the investigation on the grounds that Franco and 43 of his associates could not be held legally responsible because they were dead.

He also handed to regional courts responsibility for the excavation of mass graves from the civil war era.

In its complaint, Manos Limpias accused Garzon of ignoring the 1977 amnesty. Garzon had argued that there was no statute of limitations covering the disappearances since they constituted crimes against humanity.

On Monday, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based human rights organisation, voiced concern at the Supreme Court's decision.

"International legal standards of judicial independence prohibit the criminal liability of judges for controversial or even unjust or incorrect decisions, which should be dealt with through disciplinary procedures," said Roisin Pillay, ICJ senior legal advisor for the Europe Programme.

"Prosecutions of judges for professional acts constitute an inappropriate and unwarranted interference with the independence of the judicial process."

On Tuesday, a group that seeks to identify the victims of Franco-era killings also condemned the probe of Garzon as "grossly unjust".

"It is incomprehensible that an attempt to seek justice for victims of rights violations as serious as those committed by the Franco dictatorship can be considered as a crime," the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory said.

"For victims of Franco it is a humiliation to see that the judge who tried to find thousands of disappeared in mass graves could be convicted for it."

Garzon was thrust into the international limelight in 1998 with his attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain.

He has also investigated suspected drug lords, arms traffickers and terrorists.

AFP / Expatica

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