MADRID (AP) — The Spanish judge known for taking on high-profile human rights cases was acquitted Monday in a trial that had divided Spain. Judges ruled that Baltasar Garzon did not overstep his jurisdiction by launching an investigation into right-wing atrocities tied to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.
Garzon misinterpreted Spanish law but did not knowingly and arbitrarily violate the limits of his jurisdiction, as would be required for a conviction, the Supreme Court justices said in their 6-1 vote and 63-page ruling.
The ruling was still bittersweet consolation for Garzon, 56, whose once high-flying career effectively ended last month when he was barred from the bench for 11 years after being found guilty of similar charges in a separate domestic corruption probe. Garzon has said he may appeal that case.
A guilty verdict in the civil war case would have led to a similar sentence, although possibly longer.
The case has raised a storm in Spain, where human rights groups and supporters claim Garzon — best known for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 — had been targeted by right-wing political and judicial enemies. Crowds gathered to express their support of Garzon during the trial, and thousands rallied in Madrid in a protest following his disbarring.
Monday's ruling came less than a week after the judge was formally expelled as a magistrate from the National Court where he had worked for decades.
Garzon had a third case against him shelved earlier this month, although that decision is pending on appeal. It involves money he was suspected of improperly soliciting from banks to finance seminars he oversaw in New York while on sabbatical in 2005 and 2006.
Garzon has long been an activist judge, willing to aggressively interpret Spanish laws allowing for prosecution of crimes against humanity across borders. He tried to put Pinochet on trial in Madrid for such crimes, and indicted Osama bin Laden in 2003 over the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Garzon also carried out dozens of probes in Spain against corruption, drug traffickers and the armed Basque group ETA.
But while he was a hero for some, Garzon made many enemies at home, especially among judicial colleagues who disliked his star status and alleged corner-cutting in legal procedures and among conservative politicians who claimed he was more interested in fame than justice.
In the Spanish Civil War case, Garzon was accused of ordering a probe in 2008 into the atrocities against civilians, despite an amnesty law passed two years after the 1975 death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, as Spain moved to restore democracy and rebuild after nearly 40 years of Franco's rule.
The charges stemmed from a complaint filed by two small right-wing groups. Prosecutors themselves said Garzon committed no crime, but in Spain private citizens can seek to have criminal charges brought against someone even if legal authorities disagree.
Both sides in the war committed atrocities against civilians, but the pro-Franco civilians killed by anti-government militia were thoroughly documented by the Franco regime. This was not the case for what Garzon said were more than 100,000 executed by pro-Franco militia.
Garzon argued this amounted to a crime against humanity and this could not be covered by an war-crimes amnesty law passed in 1977. Also, since many bodies were not found, the situation was ongoing, not resolved.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said Garzon was wrong to investigate right-wing atrocities from the civil war and to call them crimes against humanity because back then the legal concept did not exist. The court also defended the Spanish amnesty law as valid.
But the court also said while Garzon had misinterpreted legal doctrines, he did not knowingly overstep his jurisdiction or commit a crime.
Garzon had actually taken himself off the probe for jurisdictional reasons well before he was ever indicted.
Amnesty International called the acquittal good news but demanded Spain set aside the amnesty law and investigate war-time and postwar atrocities.
"It is a scandal that Spain has not yet tackled its dark past," said Marek Marczynski, head of international justice at Amnesty International. "News about Judge Garzon is a step forward. However, what we want to see next is a full investigation into the catalog of abuses that took place during the civil war and Franco's regime. There must not be impunity for these most horrible crimes in Spain."
Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch said Spain's Supreme Court "has spared itself further embarrassment by dropping these ill-advised charges" and agreed Spain should repeal its 1977 amnesty law.
"But the damage has already been done with the previous conviction of Garzon. Garzon will not be able to return as a judge, but he is not the real loser," Brody said. "The real losers are the reputation of the Spanish judiciary and those ... who knew they could count on at least one independent judge to apply human rights laws without fear of the political consequences."
In the corruption case, Garzon was found by the court to have acted arbitrarily in ordering jailhouse wiretaps of detainees talking to their lawyers, saying his actions "these days are only found in totalitarian regimes."
The detainees were accused of paying off politicians of the now-ruling conservative Popular Party to obtain lucrative government contracts in the Madrid and Valencia regions.
After Garzon was suspended in 2010 following his first indictment, he took a six-month job in The Hague at the International Criminal Court as an adviser to its chief prosecutor. He later accepted a position as a human rights adviser to the government of Colombia, which is fighting leftist rebels and powerful drug lords.
Daniel Woolls contributed to this report.