Sitting in the Spanish Supreme Court during the trial of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who dared to begin an investigation into atrocities committed under Francisco Franco and during Spain’s civil war, I thought back to the last time we were in a courtroom together: It was 1998 in Westminster Abbey, as the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords debated whether Britain could honor Garzón’s warrant for the arrest and extradition of Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet. In two historic decisions, the House of Lords said it could, setting off an international justice cascade and inspiring victims in country after country to seek recourse against their former tormentors. Human rights groups like mine saw that we could use the “Pinochet precedent” to bring to justice tyrants and torturers who had seemed out of its reach.
By the time Britain ultimately sent Pinochet home, ostensibly on health grounds, previously timid Chilean judges ruled that Pinochet’s self-amnesty could not apply to the “disappeared” while their fates remained unknown, and hundreds of cases were brought against the former dictator. Indeed, courts around the world would rule that amnesties could not stand in the way of a state’s duty to investigate the worst international crimes.
The “Garzón effect,” as it came to be called, was strongest in Latin America. Argentina, Guatemala, Peru and Uruguay brought former leaders to justice. In far-off Chad, the victims (whom I represent) of the former president Hissène Habré labelled him the “African Pinochet” and got him indicted on charges of crimes against humanity in his Senegalese exile.
But when Garzón turned his sights to his home country, things took a different turn. The judge had made many enemies in Spain over the course of his long career. Conservatives were gunning for him since the start of the so-called “Gürtel” scandal, which unearthed massive corruption within the now ruling Partido Popular, or People’s Party. On the other side of the political spectrum, some Socialists hadn’t forgiven him for investigating government backing of an anti-ETA death squad decades before. Politicians on both sides were discomfited when he began investigating crimes against Spanish detainees at Guantánamo, bringing pressure from both the Bush and Obama administrations.
But it was the crime of reopening the books on the country’s past that would prove to be most intolerable. When the descendants of Franco’s victims filed complaints over the forced disappearances of more than 100,000 people—Spaniards were challenging the “pact of forgetting” that was part of their country’s move to democracy—Garzón held that the plaintiffs had a right to know what happened to the victims. He refused to apply Spain’s 1977 amnesty law for “political acts” to the complaints and began the process of ordering that mass graves be opened. One Socialist-appointed Supreme Court judge, upon hearing about Garzón’s challenge to the transition pact, is said to have chortled, “Se han acabado las Garzónadas…. se va a enterar.” (“This is the last of the Garzóneries. Now he’ll see.”)