Argentine human rights leaders show support for embattled Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Fourteen years ago, a group of Argentine women wearing white kerchiefs with the names of their missing children flew to Madrid and entered the chambers of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon. He says they changed his life.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were seeking justice for those who had disappeared during Argentina's bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Though the crimes happened on the other side of the world nearly two decades earlier, Garzon couldn't turn them away.

"Judges, more than anyone, cannot look away. This is not some other people's problem. It is our problem. It is our responsibility," said Garzon, who now faces potentially career-ending charges of overstepping his authority by trying to investigate crimes against humanity in his own country.

Today, human rights trials are in full swing in Argentina and Chile, and many credit Garzon, who charged dozens of Argentine junta figures with crimes against humanity and issued an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Garzon, who also has taken on al-Qaida terrorists, came to Buenos Aires to be honored at Friday's commemorations of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people, and to join human rights leaders in another ceremony Thursday night inside the former Naval Mechanics School, which served as one of the most notorious torture and extermination centers during the dictatorship.

Speaker after speaker thanked Garzon for showing Argentina the way at a time when amnesty laws protected former dictatorship figures from prosecution.

"The wall of impunity began to crumble on the day that Baltasar Garzon ordered the arrest of some 40 oppressors," said Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina's human rights secretary.

Garzon is charged in Spain with abusing his authority by opening an inquiry into the disappearances of more than 114,000 people during Spain's civil war and Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship, despite Spain's 1977 amnesty law that shields those responsible from prosecution. He has been suspended from the bench since May, and if convicted will be barred for 20 years, which would effectively end his career.

Garzon called it "a regression" in Spain's commitment to universal justice. "It is sad that Spain, which had earned a place among those who defend human rights, has lost that role in such a senseless way," he said.

Now rights leaders are trying to return the favor — they asked the Argentine courts in March to investigate the case Garzon would have pursued in Spain. As a first step, they filed suit on behalf of family members of three Spaniards and an Argentine killed during Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

"We want to repay the favor that Baltasar Garzon has done for us, by asking on the part of his people and on that of the Spaniards who live here, too, who want to recover their dead and give them a proper burial," said Estela de Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Spaniards should be angered by the fact that Garzon's critics did not balk when he attempted to try crimes against humanity in the Americas, but are now trying to destroy his career because he turned his attention to crimes committed on their own soil, said Horacio Verbitsky, president of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, which was founded to document the crimes of Argentina's dictatorship.

"We here, from the other side of the world, have the obligation to say that what is happening in Spain is shameful, and to express our solidarity with the Spanish people so that they, too, can demolish the walls of impunity," Verbitsky said.