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Spain’s crusading judge goes on trial for Franco probe

Top Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, famed for pursuing Latin American dictators, went on trial Tuesday accused of abuse of power for trying to prosecute atrocities under General Francisco Franco.

About 200 supporters gathered outside Madrid’s Supreme Court at the start of the case against him for ordering an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 people during Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

Many held up large black and white photographs of family members who were killed during the Franco era as they chanted: “Garzon, friend, the people are with you.”

The 56-year-old judge 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, who gained fame by pursuing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, argues that the acts were crimes against humanity and therefore not subject to the amnesty agreed by Spain’s main political parties.

The trial is expected to last a month or more.

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.

Garzon’s 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 hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across the country.

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”.

“He 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 in defence of Garzon outside the Supreme Court.

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

Among those due to speak at the trial are 22 witnesses called by the defence to testify for the families of victims.

“I want them to say sorry for murdering my father,” said one white-haired man, Gregorio, as he held a black and white picture of his father next to his name, Esteban Alvarez, and the date that he was killed: 1936.

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.