By Almudena Calatrava
Argentine human rights groups are turning the tables on Spain, hoping to open a judicial probe of murders and disappearances committed during the Spanish Civil War and Gen. Francisco Franco's long dictatorship.
Lawyers representing Argentine relatives of three Spaniards and an Argentine killed during the 1936-39 war will ask the federal courts here Wednesday to open an investigation, and hope to add many more cases in the months to come.
Such cross-border human rights probes have long been the specialty of Spain's crusading investigative judge Baltasar Garzon, whose case against Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1998 helped lead to the undoing of amnesties that had protected Latin America's dictators.
But Garzon himself now faces a potentially career-ending trial on charges of abusing his authority by opening an investigation into deaths and disappearances in Franco's Spain.
So Garzon's supporters now hope to launch the same investigation - citing the same principles of international law - from Buenos Aires. And while Garzon limited the scope to crimes committed until 1952, the Argentine rights groups hope to address any state terror in Spain from 1936-1977, when its democracy was restored.
"We have many hopes for this case," said Santiago Macias, vice president of Spain's Association for the Recuperation of Historic Memory, which helps Spaniards search common graves for anti-Franco victims of the civil war and dictatorship.
Attorney Carlos Slepoy, a specialist in human rights law, told The Associated Press the plaintiffs are invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, which provides that genocide and crimes against humanity "can be prosecuted by the courts of any country."
"It's a shame that in democracy we have to seek Argentine justice, the justice system of another country, to investigate an issue that in our supposedly strong democracy we haven't been able to do," Macias told the AP before joining the group in Buenos Aires.
"The same thing happened in Argentina when Spanish justice was the first to throw down the glove" in investigating human rights crimes committed during Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship, Macias said.
In that effort, Garzon charged various Argentine military figures with repression.
Now Garzon is accused of abuse of power in Spain by ignoring a 1977 amnesty law in probing wartime atrocities. The law was passed to help Spaniards put decades of conflict behind them. Garzon, who said as many as 114,000 people were "disappeared" or buried in common graves, had to abandon his investigation after a few months, ending what had been the first official probe into civil war atrocities.
He transferred the task of investigating mass graves and missing people to local courts.
That might allow the Spanish government to decline to cooperate with Argentina and assert that Madrid, not Buenos Aires, has preferential jurisdiction, the Spanish Human Rights Association said.
Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, one condition for a country to investigate crimes allegedly committed in another is that no probe be under way in the latter, said the association's chief lawyer, Piluca Hernandez.
The lower level courts that inherited the Franco regime case from Garzon have done very little with it, but this might still be enough for Spain to argue that Argentina cannot investigate, Hernandez said.
Still, Argentina's move will serve as a "tool for pressure and a way to embarrass, let's say, the Spanish justice system, which after all these years has failed to carry out a thorough and serious investigation," Hernandez told AP in Madrid.
Spain's Justice Ministry and several court officials declined to comment on the suit to be filed in Argentina.
The three cases being presented in Argentina on Wednesday are the civil war shooting deaths of Spanish citizens Severino Rivas, Elias Garcia Holgado and Luis Garcia Holgado, and Argentine Vicente Garcia Holgado. The plaintiffs, both Argentines, are Dario Rivas, son of the first victim, and Ines Garcia Holgado, the niece and grand-niece of the others.
The plaintiffs want the Argentine courts to expand the case to include any murders and disappearances committed by Franco's forces between July 17, 1936, the day before Franco's military turned against Spain's Republican government, and June 15, 1977, when Spain held its first democratic elections following the dictator's death in 1975.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine League for Human Rights and the Peace and Justice Service are among the rights groups joining the plaintiffs to show support for Garzon.
Maximo Castex, one of the lawyers involved, told the AP that by alleging genocide and in some cases crimes against humanity, many other cases involving Argentines whose relatives were killed in Spain will likely be added. He also predicts a flow of Spanish citizens traveling to Argentina seeking to add their names as plaintiffs.
The federal court in Buenos Aires will assign a judge, who will seek the opinion of an Argentine prosecutor and then decide whether to take the case. If so, it would be the first time an Argentine federal judge invoked universal jurisdiction for crimes committed outside the country.
Castex says this principle of universal justice is cited in Argentina's constitution.
Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz and Daniel Woolls in Madrid contributed to this story.Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.