- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

BUENOS AIRES | Argentine human rights groups turned the tables on Spain Wednesday, asking for a local judicial probe of killings and disappearances as well as suspected genocide during the Spanish Civil War and Gen. Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship.

Relatives of three Spaniards and an Argentine killed during the 1936-39 war presented their complaint in federal court, and their lawyers said they hoped to add many more cases in the months to come.

Such cross-border human rights probes have long been the specialty of Spain’s crusading investigative judge Baltasar Garzon, whose case against Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1998 helped lead to the undoing of amnesties that had protected Latin America’s dictators.

But Judge Garzon himself now faces a potentially career-ending trial on charges of abusing his authority by opening an investigation into deaths and disappearances in Franco’s Spain.

So Judge Garzon’s supporters now hope to launch the same investigation — citing the same principles of international law — from Buenos Aires. And while Judge Garzon limited the scope to crimes committed until 1952, the Argentine rights groups hope to address any state terror in Spain from 1936 to 1977, when its democracy was restored.

“We have many hopes for this case,” said Santiago Macias, vice president of Spain’s Association for the Recuperation of Historic Memory, which helps Spaniards search common graves for anti-Franco victims of the civil war and dictatorship.

Attorney Carlos Slepoy, a specialist in human rights law, told the Associated Press the plaintiffs are invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, which provides that genocide and crimes against humanity “can be prosecuted by the courts of any country.”

“It’s a shame that in democracy we have to seek Argentine justice, the justice system of another country, to investigate an issue that in our supposedly strong democracy we haven’t been able to do,” Mr. Macias told AP before joining the group in Buenos Aires.

“The same thing happened in Argentina when Spanish justice was the first to throw down the glove” in investigating human rights crimes committed during Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, Mr. Macias said.

In that effort, Judge Garzon charged various Argentine military figures with repression.

Now Judge Garzon is accused of abuse of power in Spain by ignoring a 1977 amnesty law in probing wartime atrocities. The law was passed to help Spaniards put decades of conflict behind them.

Judge Garzon, who said as many as 114,000 people were “disappeared” or buried in common graves, had to abandon his investigation after a few months, ending what had been the first official probe into civil war atrocities.

He transferred the task of investigating mass graves and missing people to local courts.

That might allow the Spanish government to decline to cooperate with Argentina and assert that Madrid, not Buenos Aires, has preferential jurisdiction, the Spanish Human Rights Association said.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, one condition for a country to investigate crimes allegedly committed in another is that no probe be under way in the latter, said the association’s chief lawyer, Piluca Hernandez.

The lower level courts that inherited the Franco regime case from Judge Garzon have done very little with it, but this might still be enough for Spain to argue that Argentina cannot investigate, Ms. Hernandez said.

Still, Argentina’s move will serve as a “tool for pressure and a way to embarrass, let’s say, the Spanish justice system, which after all these years has failed to carry out a thorough and serious investigation,” Ms. Hernandez told AP in Madrid.

Spain’s Justice Ministry and several court officials declined to comment on the suit to be filed in Argentina.

AP writers Jorge Sainz and Daniel Woolls in Madrid contributed to this report.

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