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September 10, 2009
Spanish judge under fire for opening old wounds

Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s most prominent jurist. Photo: Presidencia Argentina

A right-wing organization in Spain has tried to turn the tables on Baltasar Garzón, the country’s most prominent jurist. Garzón found himself in the dock this week in Madrid, charged by a group calling itself “Clean Hands,” for allegedly overstepping his authority by investigating atrocities during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco three-quarters of a century ago.

Garzón never faced such scrutiny on his other prominent campaigns: He had the freedom and temerity to indict Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, file charges against Argentine military officers for their role during that country’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s and 1980s, and criticize and consider indictments against U.S. officials during the Bush administration for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.

Garzón testified for more than three hours on Wednesday in Spain’s Supreme Court. He has said his responsibility was no more and no less than to apply the law “to investigate the facts, to ferret out responsibility for the protection of the victims.”

The matter at hand is unfinished business: Charges of mass graves, kangaroo courts and barbaric human rights violations committed by the Franco regime. The challenge to his authority makes it clear: the Spanish Civil War still roils emotion and divides political sentiment. The conservative opposition Popular Party, which was in power and closely allied with the Bush administration during the Iraq invasion, virulently opposes Garzón’s investigation. So does the Catholic Church in Spain, which warns that an investigation would “open old wounds.”

Thirty-four years after Franco’s death, the children and grandchildren of those who defended the Spanish republic against Franco -– who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini in a dress rehearsal for World War II –- seek a full accounting of the past. There are numerous stories around the country of mass graves still undiscovered, atrocities not documented. For some, it is a matter of conscience; for others, like those who challenge Garzón, it is dangerous to cast light on the violence of the Franco period.

Garzón, by the way, is not considered a left-wing ideologue. In the course of his career, he has faced criticism from both sides of the spectrum. In the matter at hand, he is defended by the governing Social Democratic Party and supported by significant editorial comment.

The influential Madrid daily El Pais, for example, expressed outrage that “ultra-rightwing” political groups could influence the Supreme Court.  “There is no explanation, unless it has to do with pure repression based on ideology,” El Pais said in an editorial. “One cannot cease to be astonished that, in effect, the judge that brought Pinochet to justice and who investigated crimes against  humanity in the Southern Cone during the 1970s, should be pursued criminally for trying to do the same thing in his own country. If this doesn’t stop in time, the case will turn grotesque and cause enormous international shock.”

The battle brings to mind the wise old words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Garzón has sought to hold international leaders to a simple test of justice under civilized law. It is a lesson of all.

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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