Garzon Acquitted in Amnesty Case (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

It won’t save his job, for reasons Julian mentioned a week or so ago, but it’s still good news:

Spain’s top court acquitted renowned judge Baltasar Garzon on Monday of abuse of power by trying to investigate Franco-era atrocities, in a case that exposed deep wounds dating back to the civil war.

Six members of the seven-strong Supreme Court panel came out in favour of acquitting the 56-year-old, clearing a major obstacle in Garzon’s efforts to revive a career which has been stalled by a string of court cases.

Garzon was accused of violating an amnesty by trying to investigate the disappearance of some 114,000 people during the 1936-39 Civil War and General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that ended in 1975.

Garzon had argued that the atrocities were crimes against humanity and not subject to a 1977 amnesty voted through by parliament.

The court ruled that his decision to launch the probe was “a mistake” since there needed to be a suspect still alive, but that the move did not constitute an abuse of power.

“It is not possible in our procedural system to open an inquiry without the final goal of imposing a penalty,” the court wrote in its ruling.


The court had agreed to try Garzon in a suit brought against him by two right-wing groups, despite a call from Spain’s public prosecutor for the case to be dismissed.

The two-week trial heard testimony from 12 descendants of people killed during the Civil War, who say their relatives lie in mass graves.

One witness, 75-year-old Olga Alcega, told the court how her grandfather was shot dead by Franco’s forces in 1936.

“Fear reigned this country. Nobody dared to speak out, it is up to us, the grandchildren of the victims who dare speak,” said Alcega, who attended the hearing dressed in black.

The origins of the case — and the public prosecutor’s stance — tells you all you need to know about its merits.  Whether international law permits amnesties for serious international crimes is a difficult question, but there was no justification whatsoever for prosecuting Garzon for investigating such crimes.

3 Responses

  1. Garzon’s case is just another proof that states are the natural enemy of the individual. Therefore individuals should have the possibility to sue states at international courts.

  2. It will be interesting to see whether this ruling leads other like-minded judges/lawyers to pursue legal ways to undermine the amnesty act. The verdict seems to reaffirm that it isn’t illegal to investigate Franco-era crimes which may rupture the belated floodgates of memory politics in Spain. if so, then Garzon will have actually succeeded in what he initially set out to do.

    Also, there is nothing more ironic about this case then the name of one of the far-right groups that brought the case against Garzon: “Clean Hands”!

  3. Dear Kevin,

    I was right two years ago when I said Garzón would not be convicted of “prevaricación” in this case.

    On other hand,  the clause you refer to (“reguations contained in this act are compatible with taking the legal action and having access to the ordinary and extraordinary court proceedings established in the laws or the international treaties or covenants ratified by Spain”) isn´t in amnesty act, but in the so-called “historic memory act”passed in 2007. “Historic memory Act” is intended to recognize some rights to Franco’s victims (moral recognition, declaration of illegitimacy of political convictions, increase of pensions, administrative measures to find burials…),  but it doesn´t say anything about prosecution or judicial investigation of civil war crimes. That’s the reason why it includes such clause, because its purpose is different and it hasn´t got anything to say about that point. 

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