February 27, 2012 7:59 pm

Spanish judge cleared of criminal wrongdoing

Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who has campaigned against human rights abuses, has been cleared by the Supreme Court of criminal wrongdoing over his investigations into the disappearances of people presumed killed by the forces of the dictator Francisco Franco more than 50 years ago.

Amid protests from international human rights groups, Mr Garzón had been accused of defying a 1977 amnesty law by proceeding with the investigations, in a case brought by two rightwing groups despite the opposition of the public prosecution service.

By six votes to one, the Supreme Court in Madrid on Monday absolved Mr Garzón, concluding in a 63-page ruling that although he had erred in his interpretation of the law he was not guilty of the criminal charge.

Mr Garzón, however, can no longer work as a judge because he was barred for 11 years earlier this month after being convicted in a separate case. He was found guilty of illegally ordering secret recordings of conversations between corruption suspects and their lawyers in 2009. He is planning to appeal, either to Spain’s Constitutional Court or to the European Court of Human Rights.

A third case – in which he was accused of dropping legal proceedings against senior executives of Santander, the bank, in exchange for financial sponsorship for lectures he gave in New York – was thrown out on the grounds that too much time had passed for the matter to go to court.

The three cases have exposed sharp divisions in Spanish society. Many rightwingers regard Mr Garzón as a publicity-seeking troublemaker who has tried to reopen old wounds from the 1936-39 civil war which was won by Franco.

On the day he was convicted in the wiretapping case, the Popular party’s Esperanza Aguirre, premier of the Madrid region, rejected leftwing statements that it was a sad day for democracy and said people who broke the law should be punished. “Garzón has been charged in three serious cases by unanimous agreement of 15 Supreme Court judges, so I think it’s a very happy day for democracy, not a sad one,” she said.

Leftwingers, on the other hand, generally support the judge and believe the three simultaneous accusations cannot be coincidental and were designed to ensure the end of his career.

Elena Valenciano, deputy secretary-general of the Socialist party, on Monday expressed satisfaction with the latest judgment. “We’re particularly pleased in this case because we always thought that the justice system should investigate the crimes of the Franco era,” she said.

Spanish lawyers and senior government officials say they are worried that the image of Spain and its courts has been tarnished by the high-profile Garzón cases and the way they have been covered in the media. One official denied there had been any political interference in the cases and rejected the suggestion that the judge had been set up.

In his defence during the civil war case, Mr Garzón said there were some 114,000 people, not directly involved in the fighting, who had “disappeared” as a result of extrajudicial killings.

Over the past decade, skeletons and other remains have been exhumed from mass graves around the country, but thousands of victims are unaccounted for.

Amnesty International, the human rights group, cautiously welcomed Mr Garzón’s acquittal but said Spain needed to do more. “It is a scandal that Spain has not yet tackled its dark past,“ said Marek Marczynski, the organisation’s head of international justice. “What we want to see next is a full investigation into the catalogue of abuses that took place during the civil war and Franco’s regime. There must be no impunity in Spain for these most horrible crimes.”

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