Rights groups will be observers at Spanish judge's trial

23rd January 2012, Comments 0 comments

Two human rights bodies and a group of international jurists said Monday that they will act as observers at the trial of a top Spanish judge for trying to prosecute atrocities of the Franco era.

Judge Baltasar Garzon takes the stand Tuesday in Madrid's Supreme Court facing prosecution 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.

The 56-year-old is charged with exceeding his powers on the grounds that the alleged crimes were covered by an amnesty agreed in 1977, two years after Franco's death.

He argues the acts were crimes against humanity and not subject to the amnesty.

If convicted in the trial starting Tuesday, he would not go to prison but could be suspended from the legal profession for up to 20 years.

Two rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists, have sent representatives to Madrid who will act as observers at the trial.

"We are approaching this trial with a spirit of impartiality," said the president of the International Commission of Jurists, Pedro Nikken, at a news conference.

"But this impartiality is not neutrality, we are not neutral. The values that are at stake are fundamental values that we must continue to defend."

Garzon's attempt to investigate the fates of those who disappeared during the Franco era have made him an enemy of the right in Spain, which accuses him of opening old wounds. His supporters argue the crimes were too dire to ignore.

"In the case of Garzon we could not remain silent," said Hugo Relva, a legal adviser with Amnesty International, as he explained why the rights group, which normally does not comment on ongoing trials, had made an exception.

"To open criminal proceedings for having an investigation into human rights violations that took place in the past in this country is from the point of view of Amnesty International simply scandalous and unacceptable."

Garzon won international prominence in 1998 by ordering the extradition of Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain. The judge has also pursued members of the former dictatorship in Argentina.

His supporters say it is paradoxal that Garzon will now be put on trial for pursuing the crimes of the dictatorship in his own country.

"Do the victims of Franco have less rights than the victims of Pinochet?" said Reed Brody, a lawyer with the US-based group Human Rights Watch.

© 2012 AFP

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