Almodovar leads celebrity protest in support of Civil War case judge

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The Independent Online

Spain's crusading magistrate Baltasar Garzon already enjoys the support of many international human rights advocates as he faces trial for daring to investigate Franco-era crimes. Now he also packs star power.

The director Pedro Almodovar and a cast of Spanish actors, writers and intellectuals led a sit-in yesterday at a Madrid university to protest against the Supreme Court decision to charge Mr Garzon with abusing his power in Spain's first-ever criminal investigation into Civil War atrocities – namely the forced disappearance of 114,000 victims on the losing Republican side of the war whose bodies remain unidentified in mass graves. The suit was brought by three far-right groups, including a spin-off of the Falange, the Franco-era fascist party.

"Society has a moral debt to those who lost the war and to the families of those 113,000 cadavers that lie along the sides of roads," Mr Almodovar said on Tuesday while announcing the sit-in, which is expected to last nine days and include a reading of Mr Garzon's legal brief by family members of the Republican victims. "If the Falange puts Garzon on trial, it is as if Franco had won again, and that is very difficult to digest."

The Oscar-winning director was flanked by Spanish actors such as Jose Sacristan and Pilar Bardem, mother of Javier Bardem, who compared the Garzon protest to student movements in the waning years of the Franco dictatorship.

"I didn't think at age 71 I was going to be enclosed in the same classrooms where I sat in when I was 18," Ms Bardem said. "This is the worst thing that has happened in Spanish democracy since the attempted coup of 23 February."

The celebrity sit-in is part of a wave of protest unleashed by the Supreme Court's decision to place on trial the renowned judge who ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet.

Last week, the investigating magistrate Luciano Varela charged Mr Garzon with recklessly violating a 1977 amnesty law that shielded members of the Franco regime from legal persecution. Associations representing the families of victims were outraged. Two of them have even filed a counter-lawsuit against the Supreme Court magistrate. They accused him of knowingly overstepping his powers – the same charge levelled against Mr Garzon.

Other associations were expected to petition an Argentine court yesterday to conduct a Franco-era investigation similar to Mr Garzon's. Human rights advocates hope the court will invoke the principal of "universal jurisdiction" which the Spanish magistrate applied when ordering the arrest of the Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo. In 2005, Spain's High Court convicted Scilingo of throwing political prisoners into the sea from jets during Argentina's Dirty War.