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Garzón, justice and memory

For the dead man here abandoned, build him a tomb.’ Sophocles, Antigone.

‘Senseless’, ‘astounding’, ‘unheard of’…

The world press, human rights associations and the finest international jurists can’t get over it. Why is the Spanish judicial system, which has done so much in recent years to punish and prevent crimes against humanity in many parts of the world, bringing charges against Baltasar Garzón, the judge who best symbolizes the contemporary paradigm of applying universal justice?

The international media know well the merits of the ‘superjudge’: his transcendental role in the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998; his denunciation of the atrocities committed by the military in Argentina, Guatemala and by other Latin American dictatorships; his efforts to dismantle the GAL (Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups, formed by the Spanish government to fight the ETA Basque separatists) and prosecute socialist premier Felipe Gonzalez; his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003; and even his recent trip to Honduras to warn the coup participants that crimes against humanity cannot be made to disappear.

Why is the Spanish judicial system bringing charges against Baltasar Garzón, the judge who best symbolizes the contemporary paradigm of applying universal justice?

As a judge of the National Court of Spain, Garzón prosecuted thousands of activists of the terrorist Basque separatist group ETA (the Right felt he should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize). He was later criticized for closing the Basque newspaper Egin and for ordering terrorism suspects to be held incommunicado. Organizations like the Committee for the Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe have called for the abolition of this form of detention. Garzón’s immoderate appetite for the front pages and ‘superstar judge’ behaviour are other targets of criticism.

Independent and incorruptible

In any case, Garzón has shown himself to be a rebel – independent and incorruptible. It is because of this that he has accumulated so many adversaries. There are in fact three charges pending against him in the Supreme Court. The first is for ‘fees’ he allegedly received for speaking at a conference in New York sponsored by Spain’s global bank, Banco Santander. Another regards wiretaps he ordered for the investigation of the ‘Gurtel’ network (involving figures in the rightist Popular Party (PP), particularly the party’s ex-treasurer, Luis Barcenas). But the main accusation involves the investigation of the crimes of Francoism, the Spanish brand of fascism named after the late dictator, Francisco Franco.

Two ultraconservative organizations have accused him of ‘prevarication’ for initiating an October 2008 investigation into the disappearance, during the Spanish Civil War, of more than 100,000 anti-fascist republicans and the destiny of 30,000 children taken from their mothers in prison and given to pro-Franco families during the dictatorship (1939-1975).

This is not just a juridical matter. It impassions millions of Spanish because they feel the issue is the right of victims to moral reparation

If he’s found guilty, Garzón could face a suspension of between 10 and 20 years. This would be a great shame. Because at bottom this matter involves one central question: symbolically, what is to be done with the Spanish Civil War? The Amnesty Law of 1977 was an administrative decision intended to obtain the release from prison of a few hundred prisoners of the Left. Justice was not the issue and there was no attempt to impose any kind of policy with regard to memory. More than 70 years after the conflict, with nearly all those involved now dead, justice cannot consist of trying those accused of abominable crimes. But this is not just a juridical matter. It impassions millions of Spanish because they feel the issue is the right of victims to moral reparation. At stake are the collective rights to memory and the possibility of officially establishing, on the basis of the atrocities committed, that Francoism was an abomination and that allowing it impunity is intolerable. It is essential to be able to say this, to proclaim it in museums, in history textbooks and on the solemn days of collective homage, as is the case with all of Europe in solidarity with the victims of Nazism.

A culture of concealment

Proponents of the ‘culture of concealment’ are accusing Garzón of wanting to open a Pandora’s box and divide the Spanish people again. They are insisting that the other side committed crimes as well. They behave like a journalist who, seeking to organize a ‘fair debate’ on World War Two, gave one minute to Hitler and one minute to the Jews.

Francoism was not just the Civil War in which General Queipo de Llano once asserted: ‘We must sow terror and eliminate without scruples or wavering all those who don’t think like us.’ It was above all, from 1939 to 1975, one of the most implacable authoritarian regimes of the 20th century which used terror in a systematic manner to exterminate its ideological opponents and frighten the entire population. This is not a political assertion; it is a historical fact.

The Amnesty Law led to official amnesia or ‘unconscious blindness’ (collective, in this case) by which a person makes unpleasant areas of his memory disappear. Until the day they boil back up to the surface in a fever of irrationality.

This is what Judge Garzón wanted to avoid. He wanted to reveal the malevolent nature of Francoism so that history would never repeat itself.


Ignacio Ramonet is editor of Le monde diplomatique’s Spanish edition.


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