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Prosecutors urge Spain court to drop trial of judge

Spanish prosecutors called Tuesday for the dismissal of charges against top judge Baltasar Garzon on the opening day of his trial for abuse of power in probing Franco-era crimes.

Public prosecutors and the defence agreed that Garzon, who won international fame with his attempt to extradite Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from London, had done nothing wrong.

They called on the Supreme Court to throw out the case, which was opened following a private complaint filed by two right-wing groups.

“We agree with the arguments put forward by the defence. We ask that the trial be shelved,” public prosecutor Luis Navajas told the court as Garzon, wearing his black judge’s robes, looked on.

Judges adjourned the trial until January 31 when they will announce a decision on the motion for dismissal.

Garzon is scheduled to testify that day.

The 56-year-old judge is being prosecuted for ordering an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and General Francisco Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

He is charged with exceeding his powers on the grounds that the alleged crimes were covered by an amnesty agreed in 1977 as Spain moved towards democracy two years after Franco’s death.

Garzon argues that the acts were crimes against humanity and therefore not subject to the amnesty agreed by Spain’s main political parties.

If convicted he would not go to prison but could be suspended from the legal profession for up to 20 years, putting an end to his career.

About 200 supporters rallied outside the Madrid court, many brandishing black-and-white photographs of family members killed during the Franco era.

“Garzon, friend, the people are with you,” they chanted. “We want memory! We want justice!”

The judges detractors, mainly from Spain’s right, accuse him of opening old wounds with his bid to probe crimes from the Franco era and of seeking the media spotlight by repeatedly taking on high-profile cases.

His backers argue that the trial, along with a separate case heard last week at the Supreme Court over illegal wiretapping in a corruption case, are acts of revenge against the judge for daring to tackle the abuses of the Franco regime.

After the civil war the Franco regime routinely rounded up suspected left-wing opponents as it sought to consolidate power. Many faced firing squads and were dumped in unmarked mass graves.

British historian Nigel Townson estimates 50,000 people were killed after the conflict had ended in what he has called “the most severe peacetime repression in any country in Europe, barring the Soviet Union.”

Garzon “is a brave judge,” said Mercedes del Vas, 49, whose grandmother and two other relatives were killed by Franco’s forces, as she took part in the protest outside the Supreme Court.

“He is the only one who has dared to investigate the Franco crimes. He is in court and the killers are in the street.”

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticised the trial and top Spanish artists such as Oscar-winning film director Pedro Almodovar have expressed support for Garzon.

Garzon came to international prominence in 1998 when he ordered the extradition of Pinochet from Britain to face charges of human rights abuses.

The judge has also pursued members of the former dictatorship in Argentina, indicted Osama bin Laden and probed abuses at the US prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Garzon was suspended from his duties at the National Court, Spain’s top criminal court, in May 2010 and currently works as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.