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Tables Are Turned On Crusading Spanish Judge

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Thousands marched in Spain on Sunday in support of Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish judge who became an icon for human-rights activists when he indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Now, Spain's most famous judge is on trial, after turning his investigations toward the country's own fascist past.

Garzon, 56, is a champion of universal jurisdiction — the idea that the most heinous crimes need to be prosecuted, no matter where or when.

In the case of Spain's 1930s civil war, more than 100,000 unsolved cases of deaths or disappearances remain. Mass graves continue to turn up across Spain, but no one has been prosecuted — except the man who tried to investigate them.

Garzon was allowed to indict Pinochet. He was even allowed to start investigating whether U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales allegedly authorized torture during the George W. Bush administration.

"But when Spain tries to investigate its own actions," Garzon said on the news program Democracy Now! last year, "it denies access to the facts, and puts the judge himself on trial."

In 2008, Garzon ordered mass graves exhumed and charged the late dictator Francisco Franco with murder. Two far-right groups then sued, accusing Garzon of violating a 1977 amnesty. That law, passed two years after Franco died, makes it illegal to revisit political crimes from that era. The trial on these charges began last week in Madrid.

But Garzon says some atrocities are just too horrible to have a statute of limitations. Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch agrees, pointing out that Spain didn't object when Garzon ignored amnesty laws in other countries.

"There were amnesties in Chile, in Argentina, in Peru, in Guatemala. And in all those cases, international law required an investigation of these crimes. Judge Garzon attempted to do the same thing, and he's being prosecuted for it," Brody says.

Spaniards Divided

As an investigative judge, Garzon's job is like that of a U.S. district attorney. He has put drug barons, Basque terrorists and corrupt politicians behind bars. He leapfrogged his colleagues to stardom. Now they're the ones passing judgment on him.

Jose Ignacio Wert, a Cabinet minister in Spain's new conservative government, acknowledges that there has been some resentment of Garzon inside Spain's halls of power. He says his colleagues have coined a term: "Garzonada."

"It's derogatory. 'Garzonadas' mean taking decisions that ... have a great appeal to the media, great visibility, but that are not compliant with the laws. That's a 'Garzonada,' " Wert says.

Garzon may be the darling of human-rights groups abroad, but Spaniards are divided.

Seventy-five years after its civil war, Spain still hasn't had a truth and reconciliation process. In 2007, the Socialists passed a historical memory law, recognizing victims on both sides.

On the steps of a law school in Madrid recently, students argued over whether Garzon should be their role model.

Student Francisco Reyna said the famous judge is wrong to reopen wounds from the past.

"He's taken so many steps forward — too forward, I would say," Reyna said.

Act Of Reprisal?

The Franco case is just one of three trials against Garzon. A verdict is pending on the legality of wiretaps he used to record inmates and their lawyers in 2008. It was part of a larger probe into alleged corruption involving Spain's now ruling conservative Popular Party.

If Garzon is convicted, much of the evidence against the conservatives could be thrown out. A third case involves alleged payments to him from Spanish banks.

The confluence of all these trials — just after conservatives took power in Spain last month — raises eyebrows for Human Rights Watch's Brody.

"Garzon's enemies are trying to cut him down to size. This is a reprisal against Judge Garzon for taking on controversial cases against vested interests," Brody says.

If he's convicted of any of the charges, Garzon would be barred from the bench in Spain. But he could retain a high profile abroad, with his consulting work at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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