He’s inspired tens of thousands of Spaniards to protest on his behalf—and support his efforts to uncover the crimes of Spain’s Fascist past. In 2008, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón opened the historical floodgates, announcing an official investigation into 114,000 disappearances during Spain’s bloody 1936-1939 civil war, and the subsequent years of Gen. Francisco Franco’s rule. And he did more than strike against the unofficial pacto del olvido, or pact of silence, that has existed since the dictatorship ended in 1975. He charged Franco and his associates with crimes against humanity, for the first time, and vowed to exhume Franco-era mass graves.
The judge has come under fire. Last year, three right-wing groups accused him of overstepping his judicial bounds, and he was charged with violating a 1977 amnesty law that, in an attempt to quell historical rivalries, pardoned crimes committed during the civil war. Garzón was subsequently suspended officially, and is awaiting trial.
But while he is now “opening wounds in his own country,” says Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, Garzón has long been at the vanguard of international criminal prosecutions. “He’s a reference point in the human rights movement,” Brody adds. Known as “the Bulldog,” “the Star Judge,” the “Superjuez,” Garzón has tried to chase down some of the world’s most notorious figures—from Augusto Pinochet to Osama bin Laden and members of Argentina’s former military junta. He’s done so by wielding an unusual legal tool: Spain’s exceptionally broad doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which allowed him to prosecute crimes committed outside of Spain.
He’s also been a thorn in the side of the United States: last year, Garzón, who has described the Iraq war as “illegal,” opened a case against six members of the Bush administration for their “systematic plan of torture” at Guantánamo Bay. His 2003 indictment of bin Laden was also an attempt to make things difficult for Washington. “I have no interest in judging bin Laden,” he explained. But “if they catch [him] alive, they can’t send him to Guantánamo without first dealing with this indictment.”
Garzón has been accused of seeking attention. “That desire to win spectacular cases—that’s more powerful in him than any other motivation,” former Spanish justice minister Juan Alberto Belloch has said. Spain’s El Mundo newspaper once ran a cartoon with the caption, “Who’s next?”—showing Garzón accusing Darth Vader. Garzón is “causing trouble in countries [he] doesn’t understand,” says Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, “in the interest of some idealistic notion of justice.”
But Garzón is also making friends. Last week, he met with Colombia’s president-elect, Juan Manuel Santos, on collaborating with his new government on human rights issues. As for his Spanish legal quandary, Garzón insists that instead of prosecuting him, Spain should overturn the amnesty law. (The UN Human Rights Committee has also called on Spain to do just that.) But the pacto del olvido is already unravelling. “Here’s a country that is finally coming to grips with its past,” says Brody. For that reason, he insists, “the proceedings against Garzón have already backfired.”