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Judge in the dock to defend himself over Franco investigation

The crusading Spanish judge behind the arrest and detention of General Augusto Pinochet defiantly took to the stand yesterday to defend himself against charges of abusing his power, in a case that has divided Spain.

Baltasar Garzón, famed for his human rights work, removed his black judge's gowns as he took to the witness box to deny deliberately overstepping legal boundaries while trying to open an inquiry into the execution or disappearance of more than 100,000 civilians at the hands of supporters of General Francisco Franco. He faces a suspension of up to 20 years, which would end his career.

He denied that his investigation was politically motivated, saying his reasons were no different to his probe into the Chilean military regime led by General Pinochet. "There is no ideology involved, just hundreds of thousands of victims," he said. "When people disappear, it is a permanent crime, which no amnesty law can affect." Outside the court hundreds of supporters of the judge, including British historian Ian Gibson – who has investigated the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca by Franco's gunmen during the Civil War – protested against the case.

The scars from Franco's rule are still raw in Spain, and the search for the remains of those killed by death squads continues. "Right now, Spanish judges can investigate crimes like these in Argentina or Tibet if they wanted to, but they can't do it in their own country," said Juan Luis Castro, the archaeologist responsible for the ongoing exhumation of 17 women tortured, raped and murdered by death squads in 1936 in a churchyard in Gerena.

The case, brought by the right-wing trade union Manos Libres, exposes a quirk in the Spanish legal system which allows private citizens to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree, as they do here.

The union has unsuccessfully tried to take Garzó* to court 19 times before.