Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Judge in the Dock


January 25, 2012

A Judge in the Dock


IN October 1998, British police officers arrested the Chilean general Augusto Pinochet while he was recuperating from back surgery at a London hospital. They were acting on an international warrant issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón seeking General Pinochet’s extradition to stand trial in Spain on charges of torture and murder. After a 17-month legal battle, General Pinochet was released on medical grounds, but Judge Garzón’s warrant paved the way for stripping the former dictator of immunity and prosecuting him in Chile.

Since the Pinochet arrest, Judge Garzón has indicted human-rights violators around the world. His actions helped make it possible to prosecute expatriate Rwandans for their role in the 1994 genocide and Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, who was indicted for crimes against humanity by a Senegalese judge.

Yet Judge Garzón is now himself under legal attack for confronting Spain’s own dark history. He is on trial this week before the Spanish Supreme Court for daring to investigate crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War and the nearly four-decade dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. The case against him is fueled by domestic political vendettas rather than substantive legal arguments and it could dramatically set back international efforts to hold human-rights violators accountable for their crimes.

In October 2008, in response to a petition from victims and relatives of those killed or tortured by Franco’s forces, Judge Garzón ordered the exhumation of 19 mass graves and charged Franco and his accomplices posthumously with the murder and disappearance of more than 114,000 people.

Shortly after Judge Garzón issued his edict, Spain’s chief prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, challenged it, partly by claiming that it violated Spain’s sweeping 1977 amnesty law. This law, which the United Nations Human Rights Committee has urged Spain to repeal, was passed after Franco’s death in 1975 with the military’s support and forbade the prosecution of any crime “of a political nature” committed during the Franco years.

An appellate court ruled against Judge Garzón in late 2008 and the case appeared to be resolved. But several months after the ruling, two tiny far-right groups sued Judge Garzón for “prevarication” — knowingly overstepping his authority — in violating the amnesty law.

As international criticism grew, and supporters staged large protests backing Judge Garzón, the Supreme Court accepted two other spurious suits brought against him, despite the state prosecutor’s opposition to pursuing them.

Although Judge Garzón’s actions have always been controversial, they have been instrumental in the global fight against impunity. His pursuit of General Pinochet relied on universal jurisdiction, a legal principle asserting that heinous crimes like torture and genocide may be prosecuted in any country, regardless of who the victims or perpetrators were. Indeed, the current case against Judge Garzón shows just how necessary universal jurisdiction is when countries are unable to confront their own pasts.

Criminally charging judges for prevarication is extremely rare in Spain, and a conviction would disbar Judge Garzón for 20 years — effectively ending his career. The Supreme Court’s zeal to try him has little legal basis; rather, it reflects Spanish elites’ widespread unease with applying international legal principles to Spain’s conflicted history and a deep-seated animosity toward Judge Garzón that is as much personal as political.

While the Supreme Court has many justices appointed by the rightist Partido Popular (founded by one of Franco’s former ministers), Judge Garzón also has made powerful enemies on the left, because in the late 1980s he investigated government-backed death squads created to battle the Basque separatist group ETA. His findings helped bring down a Socialist government in 1996.

Judge Garzón’s prosecution has already had a chilling effect on worldwide efforts to hold human-rights violators accountable, and a conviction would be interpreted as an even stronger warning sign. According to Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, the Haitian judge Carvès Jean is following Judge Garzón’s legal travails intently as he deliberates whether to indict Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity or to adhere to Haiti’s statute of limitations, which would place those crimes off limits.

More disturbingly, due to Judge Garzón’s legal woes, the case brought by Franco’s victims and their families is now languishing. (The only exception is in Argentina, where a prominent human-rights lawyer, using universal jurisdiction, recently filed suit charging Franco with crimes against humanity.)

In his 2005 memoir, Judge Garzón wrote, “A system built on the corpses of those who are still awaiting justice so they can rest in peace is an illegitimate system and one that is condemned to eventually suffer the same fate.”

It would send a tragic and telling message to those victims — and others like them around the world — if the one person convicted for Franco’s crimes is the judge who dared to investigate them.

Dan Kaufman is a writer and musician.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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