Maverick Spanish judge backed by huge rallies

Tens of thousands of people marched through Spanish cities in a show of support for a judge indicted on charges of abusing his authority by investigating atrocities committed during the country's civil war and in the years of dictatorship after.

Magistrate who sought to bring Pinochet to justice faces disciplinary trial

Many of the tens of thousands of Spaniards who rallied Saturday in support of High Court Judge Baltasar Garzon saw family or friends killed or 'disappeared' during the dicatatorship of Francisco Franco. The sign reads 'More judges like Garzon.' ((Susana Vera/Reuters))

Tens of thousands of people marched through Madrid and other Spanish cities on Saturday in a boisterous show of support for a judge indicted on charges of abusing his authority by investigating atrocities committed during the country’s civil war and the early years of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

In the Spanish capital, demonstrators waved posters mocking Franco as a vampire alongside flags of the prewar government he ousted as they snaked through the city centre. The protesters included members of Spain's entertainment world, such as Oscar-winning filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

Rallies also were held in Barcelona and more than a dozen other Spanish cities.

In Madrid, a small rally against the judge was staged by Falange Espanola, the fascist political party that had backed the Franco regime.

Judge Baltasar Garzon is accused of overstepping his powers by launching an investigation into the Franco regime, which received an amnesty in 1977. ((Sergio Perez/Reuters))

Judge Baltasar Garzon — best known abroad for having former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested in London in 1998 and trying to put him on trial in Spain — has been indicted on grounds he knowingly overstepped his jurisdiction by investigating tens of thousands of executions and disappearances of civilians during the 1936-39 war and in the early Franco years that followed.

Those crimes were covered by an amnesty approved in 1977 as Spain moved toward reconciliation after the dictator's death two years earlier.

Garzon launched his probe in 2008 in what was widely seen as a bid for an indictment, albeit a symbolic one, of the Franco regime itself. He ordered mass graves dug up and said the Franco regime should be charged with crimes against humanity for waging a systematic campaign to eliminate opponents.

Dark chapter

Garzon reluctantly dropped the probe months later in a dispute over jurisdiction. His was the first official probe of a dark chapter of Spain's past, one that Spanish conservatives say he has no business resurrecting.

"Garzon is a symbol of many people and judges who would like to dig up graves," demonstrator Pedro Matanzas, 55, said Saturday.

Jose Inocencio Rodriguez, a 33-year-old Madrid subway driver, said Garzon is being punished for going where no other judge dared go before.

"There is a taboo surrounding the civil war. Garzon is trying to break it, and they are trying to silence him," he said.

Garzon is expected to go on trial some time in the coming months and could be suspended in the next few weeks. If convicted, he does not face jail time but could be removed from his judicial post for up to 20 years.