Spanish High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón’s 1998 indictment of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was monumental. It was the first successfully applied example of the principles of universal jurisdiction to indict a former head of state. Pinochet was forced to stand trial for human rights violations during his regime, despite the 1978 amnesty granted to him in Chile.
Garzón’s recently attempted investigation in Spain of at least 100,000 executions and disappearances during Franco’s long rule has run into alarming opposition, resulting in a politically-charged indictment by that country’s Supreme Court for overstepping his power.
Politically, even culturally, this is an enormous and untouchable issue. The whole establishment of Spanish democracy was brokered with an agreement to establish a “pact of forgetting,” to sweep all rancid memories from 1936 to 1977 under the rug, and of course to grant amnesty for all Franco-inspired crimes. Steps made to reexamine the past, such as exhumation of mass graves as early as 2000 as part of a national “historical memory” law, are relatively recent.
It’s highly upsetting that Garzón has run into such fire with this issue in his own, politically divided country, from socialists and conservatives alike. He is meanwhile facing another trial of bribe allegations, putting his entire career on the line.
Though legally improper in its neglect of the amnesty law, Garzón’s investigation is highly justified by the principles of universal jurisdiction. It is especially worthwhile in light of mounting unrest among the many victims’ children and grandchildren. According to a Guardian article from 2008, when Gazón began his efforts:
The judge’s investigation stems from around 1,200 petitions from families and associations asking for information on those who “disappeared” between July 1936 and November 1975, when Franco’s soldiers often dispatched dissidents during a paseo, a “stroll” that ended with a bullet in the head and an unmarked grave.
On Garzón’s side, however, are Argentine lawyers representing Argentine relatives of victims, who are attempting to open a federal investigation of executions and disappearances within Spain, following Garzón’s own international-case model.
According to the Times, Garzón’s other supporters include “government ministers, eminent judges and Pedro Almodóvar, the Oscar-winning film director.” Almodóvar said recently:
Society has a moral debt to those who lost the war and to the families of those 113,000 bodies that lie along the sides of roads. If the Falange puts Garzón on trial, it is as if Franco had won again.
For someone who has pursued (to varying degrees of success) the Basque ETA and Al-Qaeda–and even the Bush Administration “Six”–all for the sake of human rights alone, this would surely be a dismal end to his career.