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A new Spanish civil war

A legal attack on Spain's star judge, Baltasar Garzon, is launched after his attempts to probe Spanish Civil War deaths.

May 16, 2010

For years, conservatives in Spain bristled as their most famous magistrate, Baltasar Garzon, pushed the boundaries of international law against former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and human rights abusers in other countries, but they were powerless to stop him. When Spain's star judge turned his sights on Spanish Civil War atrocities, however, they joined forces with his many personal enemies and went after him, accusing him of opening old wounds and violating the country's 1977 amnesty law. Last week, a Supreme Court judge decided to bring the case to trial, and the General Council of the Judiciary voted in an emergency session to suspend Garzon.

From the beginning, the case against Garzon has seemed to be motivated by political and personal vendettas, and the timing of these decisions is no exception. Early in the week, Garzon had asked Spanish authorities for a seven-month leave to work as a consultant to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, presumably as a face-saving measure to avoid the humiliation of a suspension. But on Wednesday, an investigating magistrate for the Supreme Court (and one of Garzon's detractors) suddenly ordered Garzon to face trial for proceeding without jurisdiction on the Spanish Civil War cases, and the suspension followed on Friday. Such haste in a case that had been moving normally through the system since February has the whiff of malice; the decision was made even though the Spanish attorney general's office still had questions about the case. If convicted, the 54-year-old Garzon would not be jailed, but he could be removed from the bench for up to 20 years. For all practical purposes, it would mean the end of his career in Spain.

Garzon is a hero to many in the international human rights community for his pursuit of criminals and despots, regardless of their political bent, and for his commitment to international laws that say crimes against humanity cannot be amnestied or subjected to statutes of limitations. But heroes are often flawed characters, and Garzon is no exception. His ego and grandstanding, along with his legal stands, have earned him enemies. He is also being investigated in connection with questionable wiretaps he ordered in a probe of a corruption scandal involving the conservative opposition party.

In the Spanish Civil War case, Garzon sought to apply at home the principles he had championed abroad. He tried to open a case on behalf of relatives of the tens of thousands of Spaniards who died or disappeared in the war that ushered in the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1939, despite the amnesty covering the deaths and disappearances during the war and in its aftermath. The vehemence with which Garzon's inquiry was rejected is not surprising given the bloody history of the period, yet the legal action against Garzon is; it's one thing for his superiors to disagree with his judgment in bringing the case or to determine that he is overreaching, but it is quite another to charge him with breaking the law for doing so. Whatever happens in the case against Garzon, it seems that Spain is going to have to probe that past and provide the families with answers. The political divisions that marked that dark chapter of Spanish history still seem to be in play.

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