Baltasar Garzon, Spain's Powerful Judge, Charged With Abuse Of Power

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MADRID — The Spanish judge who became an international hero by going after Augusto Pinochet and Osama bin Laden was indicted Wednesday for having dared to investigate what is arguably Spain's own biggest unresolved case: atrocities committed during and after its ruinous Civil War.

Baltasar Garzon was charged with knowingly acting without jurisdiction by launching a probe in 2008 of tens of thousands of wartime executions and disappearances of civilians by forces loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco, even though the crimes were covered by a 1977 amnesty.

Garzon does not face jail time but if convicted he could be removed from the bench for 10 to 20 years. A conviction would effectively end Garzon's career as a judge, his attorney has said.

The indictment by Luciano Varela, an investigating magistrate at the Supreme Court, marks a devastating fall from grace for one of Spain's most prominent and divisive public figures and a man well-known overseas for his cross-border justice cases.

Garzon, 54, is a hero to leftists and international human rights groups like Amnesty International, but he is a headline-loving egotist with a grudge against the right in the eyes of Spanish conservatives. He has prosecuted people ranging from Islamic extremists to Basque separatists to Argentine "dirty war" suspects, and has many political enemies and detractors in everyday life.

Indeed, for many Spaniards Garzon is being punished for standing out: for being a legal superstar who lands cushy lecturing gigs abroad and draws crowds wherever he goes while low-paid counterparts back home watch in envy.

Garzon will probably be suspended from his post at the National Court in a matter of days and a trial could start as early as June, Garzon's lawyer Gonzalo Martinez-Fresneda told AP Wednesday.

Garzon made no immediate public comment but supporters were devastated.

Emilio Silva, head of an association that helps Spaniards find the bodies of loved ones missing since the 1936-39 war, said Garzon was an exception in a country where no government ever tried to offer justice to such descendants, even as bodies keep turning up in mass graves.

"And when a judge investigates the crime, they put him on trial. It is almost humiliating," Silva said.

Over the past decade Garzon has gained fame worldwide as the most prominent symbol of Spain's doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which holds that heinous crimes like torture or terrorism can be tried in this country even if they are alleged to have been committed elsewhere and had no link to Spain.

He used it in 1998 to go after Pinochet, having the former Chilean despot arrested during a visit to London. Pinochet was kept under house arrest in London until he was ruled physically and mentally unfit to stand trial and released in 2000.

Garzon also indicted bin Laden in 2003 for the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S.

The doctrine was trimmed last year to require a Spanish link for such probes to proceed. Garzon is now investigating the Bush administration for abuses at the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects. Part of his argument is that a Spaniard was among those abused there.

In the summer of 2008, Garzon turned his sights on the murkiest chapter of Spain's own past – an act many people here and abroad said was long overdue and conservatives dismissed as grandstanding and digging up a past many wanted to let lie.

He argued that Franco and his cohorts engaged in a crime against humanity – Garzon cited a systematic campaign by Franco to eliminate opponents – during the war and in the early years of the regime.

Garzon said the Franco regime should be investigated for human rights crimes – even if it was difficult 70 years after the war ended and few suspects, even if identified, would be alive to stand trial.

His was Spain's first official probe ever of a dark and largely unexplored chapter in the country's past, and it was widely seen as seeking an indictment, albeit a symbolic one, of the Franco regime itself.

Garzon reluctantly dropped it in a matter of months after accepting that he lacked jurisdiction, and transferred it to lower courts.

Varela, who has been investigating Garzon since 2009, argued Wednesday in a 14-page ruling that, in starting the probe, Garzon "was aware of his lack of jurisdiction" because of the amnesty decreed by Parliament in 1977 for civil war-era crimes. Then, Franco had been dead for two years and Spain was moving to rebuild and put old wounds behind it.

Garzon denies any wrongdoing and has defended his probe as legitimate. Varela's charge is that Garzon should never have launched the probe in the first place.

Varela was assigned to the case after the Supreme Court agreed to study complaints against Garzon that were filed by three right-wing groups.

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