Spain’s Most Famous Judge on Trial

Baltasar Garzon, Spain’s most famous judge, took the stand on Tuesday as he faces charges of abusing his judicial authority. Private prosecutors are alleging that Garzon, who is most well-known as the judge who sought the extradition of Augusto Pinochet from England to face charges of torture and murder, pursued criminal cases against the perpetrators of human rights abuses under General Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from the 1930’s to 1970’s, despite amnesty laws that were passed after Franco’s death. After the seven judge panel of the Spanish Supreme Court rejected the applications by both state prosecutors and Garzon’s defense team to throw out the cases, private prosecutors were cleared to pursue the charges. Spanish law permits private parties to prosecute criminal charges.

While on the stand, Garzon remained silent and refused to answer the questions posed by the prosecutors. He did, however, respond to questions posed by his own counsel taking the opportunity to explain his investigation into complaints of people still missing from the Franco era. He claims that he found evidence of a systematic plan against Franco’s opponents that included forced disappearances, illegal detentions and assassinations.

Spanish Parliament unanimously passed the amnesty law in 1977 and prosecutors are accusing Garzon of thinking himself to be above the law. Garzon has characterized the crimes of the Franco backers as “permanent crimes”, which is consistent with the view taken by international law. Crimes such as torture, illegal detention and widespread and systematic murder are viewed as peremptory norms which no law can override. These crimes are also viewed as having no statute of limitations. Thus, despite Garzon’s disregard for the amnesty law, it would appear that his actions were legally justified.


  1. It does seem that using Spain’s amnesty law to prevent the investigation (and prosecution) of murders during Franco’s rule goes against international law regarding these kinds of crimes against humanity. It is widely recognized that the should be considered ongoing crimes and therefore to be able to be prosecuted, not protected. Applying the amnesty law and preventing investigation into the murders is also denying rights to the victims, which they should be afforded. I hope that this case comes out in favor of Garzon and can serve as an example that such crimes should be considered ongoing and not protected from prosecution.

  2. Even though Spain has a history stained by incidences of bribery, corruption, human rights violations, and other unethical business and governmental practices, recent events, like the Pinochet arrest and extradition, the prosecution of Juan Antonia Roca (the director of planning at Marbella town hall who allegedly received upwards of €670m in bribes over the course of three years from mayors, town councilors, and aristocrats in exchange for favorable “votes,” and ultimately decisions, by the town hall, most of which related to town planning ordinances), and the beginning of the inquiry led by Garzon into Franco era crimes are indicative of a transition in Spain away from its troubled past towards a promising, just future. I am perhaps too optimistic, but I am confident that the Spanish Supreme Court will not allow its country to take a step backwards, and thus, it will acquit Judge Garzon of these politically motivated charges brought by private individuals, not even the state itself.

  3. A comment is not enough to discuss the tension between amnesty and international criminal law, but to fulfill its intended purpose, amnesty ought to have both the support of both the nation and the international community. The 1977 amnesty law has neither: victims and relatives of those killed or tortured by Franco’s forces petitioned Judge Garzón to investigate and the United Nations Human Rights Committee has urged Spain to repeal the law. Moreover, under international law, there can be no amnesty for crimes against humanity and unsolved disappearances constitute a continuing crime. Judge Garzón’s prosecution has already had a chilling effect on worldwide efforts to hold human-rights violators accountable and likely will chill judicial independence. Garzón is an amazing human rights defender, who made it possible to prosecute expatriate Rwandans for their role in the 1994 genocide; who paved the way for stripping former dictator General Augusto Pinochet of immunity and his prosecution in Chile; and who helped to prosecute Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré, indicted for crimes against humanity by a Senegalese judge. Obviously, Garzón has powerful enemies who would like to end his career. For the sake of the international community, I hope they fail.

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