Controversial Spain judge suspended over war probe

MADRID Fri May 14, 2010 4:28pm BST

1 of 2. A man wearing a mask of Spanish High Court judge Baltasar Garzon holds a sign outside the General Council of the Judicial Power headquarters in Madrid May 14, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/ Stringer

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MADRID (Reuters) - Controversial Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon was suspended on Friday pending his trial on charges he exceeded his authority by ordering an investigation into mass killings during the Civil War, court officials said.

"It was unanimously agreed to apply a temporary suspension due to the Supreme Court ordering the said judge to face trial," Gabriela Bravo, spokeswoman for Spain's top judicial panel, told journalists.

Visibly moved, the silver-haired Garzon was hugged and cheered by a throng of supporters as he left his High Court chambers following the suspension.

Garzon, who won fame for trying to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on human rights charges, has sharply divided Spanish public opinion.

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets to support him, saying the case is a politically motivated ploy by the right wing and that his trial amounts to granting impunity for mass killings.

Conservatives say he is reopening old wounds and diverting attention from Spain's deep recession and attempts to contain the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis.

Garzon faces two other Supreme Court enquiries: one for bugging corruption suspects linked to the opposition Popular Party, and another for dropping an investigation into the head of Spain's biggest bank Santander after receiving payments for giving courses sponsored by the bank in New York.

"I face it (the trial) with calm, the calm granted by knowing one is innocent as charged," Garzon said on radio and television on Thursday.

MANY VICTIMS UNACCOUNTED FOR

He was ordered to face trial on Wednesday for proceeding without jurisdiction to probe alleged crimes committed during the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco. No date has been set.

An estimated 100,000 people who disappeared during the 1936-39 Civil War are still unaccounted for, including Spain's best known 20th-century poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.

Garzon opened the investigation at the request of victims' relatives in October 2008.

Most of the disappeared were supporters of the Republican government against which Franco led a military uprising in 1936. Thousands of Franco supporters who were also killed have long since been tallied and commemorated.

Garzon passed the case on to regional courts amid claims that the crimes were covered by a 30-year statute of limitations and a 1977 amnesty law passed during Spain's tense transition to democracy.

His trial stems from a lawsuit brought by the small rightist Manos Limpias union and the far-right Falange party, which was a mainstay of Franco's dictatorship but is now marginalized.

The suspension casts doubt on whether Garzon can accept an offer to work as a consultant at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the world's first permanent tribunal set up to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.

(Writing by Martin Roberts, editing by Tim Pearce)

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