Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s internationally renowned investigating magistrate, is being prosecuted on charges that could end his career. The case has the hallmarks of a politically motivated attempt to smear and disbar a courageous public official who has fought terrorists and state-sanctioned death squads, corruption and tyranny. It is without merit and reflects poorly on Spain’s increasingly politicised judicial system.

The main charge against Mr Garzón – brought by a residual fascist group – is that he exceeded his powers by investigating crimes against humanity committed by Francoist forces in the 1936-39 civil war and its vengeful aftermath.

There is a debate to be had about how to deal with skeletons in the national cupboard. Different countries – from South Africa to Chile, Poland to Argentina – have found different ways according to their circumstances. Spain’s way was the negotiated amnesia of the post-Franco transition, whereby the crimes of the civil war would be forgotten (and the evidence left buried, or destroyed). But that denied decent burial to tens of thousands of defeated Republicans, whose remains are being exhumed from hundreds of mass graves all over Spain under the controversial 2007 law of “historic memory”.

Mr Garzón took this further and opened a case against the Francoist perpetrators, nearly all dead. This outraged the right, which argues that he is contravening the 1977 amnesty law. But there can be no statute of limitations in crimes against humanity. The question is how to balance justice with political judgment. Yet, Mr Garzón was responding – as is his duty – to the judicial petitions of the families of the dead; last year he decided not to proceed with the case.

His real offence may be that he is pursuing corruption cases implicating regional barons of the rightwing opposition Partido Popular (PP). Yet, in the mid-90s, he forensically uncovered the government-sponsored death squads that carried out 27 killings in an attempt to destroy the support structure of Eta, the Basque terrorist group. This mortally wounded the ruling Socialist party (to which Mr Garzón was close) and helped bring the PP to power in 1996.

The real problem here is that politics in Spain, ever since the Socialists were swept into power after the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the then PP government’s attempt to manipulate them, have become destructively factional. But that is no justification for making one of Spain’s most distinguished public servants a victim.

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