The case against Baltasar Garzon


Spain’s world-famous magistrate, Baltasar Garzon, has made many enemies over the years. He has indicted Osama bin Laden. He has gone after Spanish paramilitaries, Basque separatists and members of drug mafias. On this side of the Atlantic, Garzon is best known as the judge who pushed the frontiers of international law, trying to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from London and launching an inquiry into the suspected torture of detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo.

After all that, it is perhaps ironic that the biggest threat to Garzon right now comes not from some hit man but from his own judiciary, which alleges that the judge has overreached at home by trying to probe Spanish Civil War atrocities that were covered by an amnesty the country’s parliament passed in 1977. Many of Garzon’s adversaries on the right and the left have come together in support of the case against him. It’s possible Garzon will be suspended from his duties in the coming days. If convicted, his career as a judge would be over.

Tens of thousands of Spaniards died or disappeared in the civil war, which ushered in the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1939. When Franco died in 1975, the amnesty was widely seen as essential for a transition to democracy. But many of the victims have never been accounted for, and the country has not fully come to terms with its violent past. Garzon opened the case on behalf of relatives who sought to exhume and identify the dead. After right-wing groups filed a complaint, an investigative judge concluded that Garzon “consciously decided to ignore” the will of parliament in pursuing the case, and now a five-judge panel must decide whether to put him on trial for criminal intent. Garzon denies wrongdoing; the disappearances, he says, were crimes against humanity and, therefore, cannot be covered by an amnesty.

We admire Garzon for a lifetime of pursuing criminals without regard to ideology or political bent, often at great personal risk. We also recognize that his outsized ego and appetite for attention have antagonized colleagues and politicians. Though we are in no position to judge the legal challenge against him, we worry about politicization of the Spanish legal system with this divisive case, and the haste with which events are unfolding: An administrative panel is considering Garzon’s suspension even before judges decide whether to allow charges to be filed.

We sincerely hope that the Spanish courts will put aside personal animosities and political vendettas, and that Garzon’s enemies will not use this case to bring down a judge they dislike. Love him or hate him, he deserves a fair hearing. And a democratic Spain deserves an upstanding judiciary.