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.