Judge Garzon – Human Rights vs Historical Amnesia

Judge Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish judge who tried to bring Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice, spoke at the UW Law School last week. Unfortunately, a lot was lost in the translation (by headset) and I really regret not speaking Spanish.


Judge Garzon spoke on the importance of justice and of not forgetting the human rights abuses for the victims and society.  Of course, the trouble is, that societies want to forget; or are pressured into forgetting. Amnesty is granted for human rights abuses in order to move forward.

None of which deters Judge Garzon, who is willing to take on human rights violations by anybody.

According to the LA Times:

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.

Which has now got him in trouble with his own country, for investigating Spanish Civil War atrocities.

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.

Talk about historical amnesia – 70 years later and still there are many who don’t want to look at the truth.

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.

Can human rights just be negotiated away or forgotten to move forward? What about the victims? Judge Garzon spoke about the victims and their families, and how it is now not only the Mothers of the Plaza in Argentina, but their grandchildren, the children of the disappeared, who are the loudest calling for justice.

Of course, that kind of amnesia is happening in the U.S. as well, as the Obama administration avoids investigating or prosecuting members of the Bush administration for their involvement in torture. Judge Garzon is willing to bring that case to court. First, he has to deal with the charges that he refuses to forget that Spanish Civil War human rights violations.


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