- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

MADRID The Spanish judge who became an international human rights hero went on trial Tuesday for daring to probe right-wing atrocities surrounding the Spanish Civil War that may be linked to the deaths or disappearances of more than 100,000 civilians.

It is the second trial in as many weeks for 56-year-old Baltasar Garzon, although the charges at the Supreme Court are essentially the same: that he knowingly exceeded the bounds of his authority.

He stood trial last week for ordering jailhouse wiretaps in a corruption investigation.

In the current case, he has been indicted for investigating more than 100,000 civilian deaths and disappearances at the hands of supporters of the late dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

The crimes took place during and after Spain’s 1936-39 civil war, which brought Franco to power.

Such crimes were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain moved to restore democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, but Judge Garzon investigated anyway.

He argued that crimes involving missing persons cannot be covered by amnesty, that the killings and disappearances amounted to crimes against humanity by the Franco regime and that such atrocities have no statute of limitations.

Spaniards are highly divided over Judge Garzon - he has rock-star status among rights groups, but conservatives deride him as being more interested in fame than justice.

Human rights group say it is appalling that Judge Garzon - who has pioneered universal jurisdiction, or the idea that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere - is being put on trial at home for daring to probe what arguably is Spain’s biggest unresolved human rights case.

They say he is being targeted by Spanish right-wingers and it would be a tremendous embarrassment and setback for the Spanish justice system if he is convicted.

About 100 pro-Garzon demonstrators rallied outside the Supreme Court before the trial started, chanting “Garzon, our friend, the people are with you!”

Tuesday’s session was taken up by procedural motions filed by Judge Garzon’s lawyer. The trial then recessed until Jan. 31, when Judge Garzon is scheduled to testify.

The case has been brought because of a complaint filed by two right-wing groups, even though government prosecutors themselves say Judge Garzon did nothing wrong and should be acquitted.

This is a quirk of Spanish penal law - private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.

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