Embattled Spanish judge suspended ahead of trial

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Spain's crusading judge Baltasar Garzon was suspended from his post Friday ahead of his trial for abuse of power linked to a probe of Franco-era crimes, a decision condemned by human rights groups.

The body that oversees the judiciary, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), decided unanimously to suspend Garzon, a spokeswoman for the body said, two days after the Supreme Court cleared the way for his trial.

On hearing of the decision, an emotional Garzon emerged from his office at National Court to cheers and hugs from dozens of supporters who chanted "Garzon, friend, the people are with you!"

Garzon is accused of abuse of power for opening an investigation in 2008 into the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during the 1936-39 civil war and General Francisco Franco's ensuing right-wing dictatorship.

The case follows a complaint by far-right groups that the probe ignored an amnesty law passed in 1977, two years after Franco's death, for crimes committed under the general's rule.

Garzon has argued that the disappearances constituted crimes against humanity and were therefore not covered by the amnesty.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday removed the last obstacle to his trial over the case, although no date been set.

If convicted he would avoid prison but could be suspended for up to 20 years, which would effectively end the career of the 54-year-old.

"It's a very sad day for Spain," said Santiago Macias, the vice president of the Association for the Recovery of Historial Memory, which campaigns for the rights of victims of Franco.

"Today, someone needs to come out and say: 'Spaniards, justice is dead,'" he said, referring to the famous line of a television presenter in 1975 who announced in tears that "Spaniards, Franco is dead."

Human Rights Watch also condemned the CGPJ's decision.

"This is a sad day for the cause of human rights. Garzon was instrumental in delivering justice for victims of atrocities abroad and now he is being punished for trying to do the same at home," Reed Brody, the rights group's legal counsel, said in a statement.

"Garzon's decision not to apply Spain's amnesty, for which he is being prosecuted, is supported by international law, which impose on states a duty to investigate the worst international crimes, including crimes against humanity."

On Tuesday, Garzon asked Spanish authorities to be allowed to work as a consultant for the International Criminal Court, following an offer from The Hague-based court.

The ICC posting, scheduled to last seven months, had been seen as an attempt by him to avoid the humiliation of a formal suspension over the charges against him.

The judge is also involved in two other cases, one regarding wiretaps he ordered as part of a probe into a corruption scandal involving members of the conservative opposition party and another over suspected bribery over payments he allegedly received for seminars in New York.

He first made world headlines in October 1998 when he ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in London under the principle of "universal jurisdiction."

Universal jurisdiction holds that heinous crimes like torture or terrorism can be tried in Spain even if they had no link to the country.

Garzon also indicted Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and looked into the deaths of Spaniards in Argentina during the military regime of 1976-83.

But critics like to point out that both his high-profile cases against Pinochet and Bin Laden went nowhere. And conservative politicians and media in Spain have accused him of opening old wounds with some of his probes.

Garzon has also been active in Spain's crackdown on the Basque separatist group ETA and is reported to be on the outfit's list of assassination targets.

© 2010 AFP

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