In Madrid, the trial of famed Spanish Investigative
will continue this week as the Spanish Supreme Court denied Garzón’s request to drop the charges against him. Garzón first rose to prominence in Spain and amongst human rights groups worldwide for his investigations of human rights crimes, most notably his role in the 1998 indictment of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 2008, Garzón initiated an investigation, which included exhumations of mass graves in Spain, into unsolved deaths and disappearances that occurred under the Franco regime. The judge now sits accused of violating a 1977 Spanish “amnesty law” that prohibits inquiries into political crimes from the Franco era.
Though public prosecutors agree with the defense’s calls to drop the charges, the Spanish legal system allows private citizens to levy criminal charges against individuals. The charges against Judge Garzón have been raised by two right-wing organizations, Clean Hands and Liberty and Identity, who assert the judge has needlessly “re-opened wounds” from the Franco era as a means to promote a leftist political agenda. Many on the right were angered when Garzón named Franco himself, dead since 1975, as a suspect in crimes committed during the dictatorship. “Garzón might as well put Napoleon on trial…. It is an outrage. There were amnesty laws,” announced former Franco minister and People’s Party founder Manuel Fraga.
Garzón and his supporters, many of whom are families of the victims of Franco era repression, feel that victims of the regime deserve answers, and that crimes of such magnitude should be exempt under amnesty laws or statutes of limitations. Thousands have lined the streets around the Madrid courthouse throughout the trial to waive signs and express support for the judge’s inquiries into the fate of the 114,000 people who were killed or disappeared under the Franco regime. “The amnesty law refers to crimes of a political nature, in no way can it be said that crimes against humanity of the kind that were alleged could have any political nature,” said Judge Garzón.
Human rights groups agree with Judge Garzón and have condemned the trial as hypocritical and politically motivated. The Spanish government previously supported Garzón’s investigations into other human rights abuses outside of Spain, under the “universal jurisdiction” theory that serious crimes must be prosecuted regardless of where or when they occurred. But the government changed its tune once Garzón started looking into domestic issues. Some point to additional charges brought against the judge, including corruption, as evidence of a political smear campaign against a man who developed many enemies in his rise to prominence.
The Spanish Supreme Court’s choice to pursue the criminal case against Garzón raises questions about the power of international human rights norms and how they can be affected, or even trumped, by state law. In a rejection of the theory of universal jurisdiction espoused by Garzón and many human rights advocates, Spanish authorities have prioritized a local amnesty law of questionable purpose above the prosecution of what Garzón described as the “systematic elimination” of thousands of people. In allowing the case to proceed, the Spanish Supreme Court ignores the international law precedent established by Garzón years ago when he used international law to trump Chilean amnesty laws, using the Chile’s amnesty as the legal basis for the extradition of Pinochet from Chile to Europe for prosecution.