Honoring Baltasar Garzón

Honoring Baltasar Garzón

The Spanish judge who dared to hold brutal human rights violators to account is now fighting for his legal career.


In the 1930s some 2,800 Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and traveled to Spain to fight to defend democracy and defeat fascism after Gen. Francisco Franco’s right-wing coup. In 2011 the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), an educational nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the record and spirit of the brigades, is fittingly awarding its first annual Human Rights Activism award to Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge under fire for daring to investigate Franco’s crimes. The $100,000 award, made possible through the generosity of the Puffin Foundation, could not come at a more propitious time, as Judge Garzón is fighting for his legal career. He faces several politically motivated criminal prosecutions for his decisions and has been suspended from his judicial post while the cases against him are pending.

Garzón is a world-renowned hero to the human rights community, in large part because of his indictment and arrest warrant against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile. The warrant, issued in 1998, led to an extradition request to Britain, where Pinochet was visiting for medical reasons. When Pinochet claimed that as a former head of state he had immunity from the legal process, Britain’s highest court rejected the claim, holding that no such immunity existed for crimes against humanity. Pinochet was ultimately returned to Chile on medical grounds, but the case spawned a renewed campaign in Chile to hold the former dictator accountable, which ended only when Pinochet died.

Garzón has reliably insisted on accountability for human rights violations. Invoking the principle of “universal jurisdiction” for especially egregious crimes, in 2003 he jailed former Argentine naval officer Ricardo Miguel Cavallo for genocide and torture committed during the Argentine military’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and ’80s. He brought cases against Russian mafia leaders and against Osama bin Laden. At the time of his suspension, Garzón was considering a complaint against several Bush administration lawyers, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, now a US federal appeals court judge, for their roles in facilitating torture at Guantánamo.

All of this was controversial enough. But according to his critics, Garzón crossed the line when he sought to bring such principles of accountability home. In 2008 he opened an investigation into disappearances committed by the Franco regime. In 1977 Spain had enacted an amnesty law for the Franco administration’s crimes, but Garzón ruled that under international human rights law, crimes against humanity are not subject to amnesty. An appeals court disagreed by a vote of 10 to 5, and the case ended.

But the dispute did not end there. A fringe right-wing group filed a criminal complaint against Garzón, arguing that he had abused his powers in asserting jurisdiction over Franco’s crimes. So now, instead of investigating more than 114,000 disappearances, the Spanish legal system is investigating Garzón—for issuing a decision that five appeals court judges thought was correct in the first place. Garzón’s opponents have filed other complaints against him. The Spanish government has opposed the cases going forward, but under Spanish law people with no concrete connection to a matter can continue to pursue such claims. In March a London-based human rights organization, Interights, filed a case against Spain before the European Court of Human Rights, maintaining that prosecuting a judge for interpreting the law violates core principles of judicial independence.

In the meantime, Garzón is acting as a consultant to the International Criminal Court, carrying on his lifelong work of holding international criminals accountable. The well-deserved ALBA/Puffin award should help him defend himself. But surely something has gone terribly wrong when a judge who dares to hold brutal human rights violators to account finds himself fighting for his career for doing so, while here in the United States a lawyer who authorized torture enjoys life tenure as a federal judge.

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