MADRID - Thousands rallied across 28 Spanish cities Saturday to protest the trial of crusading judge Baltasar Garzon, as a rights group warned targeting him would undermine EU efforts to combat abuses.
Garzon, who ordered the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 under the principle of "universal jurisdiction" which held that grave crimes committed abroad can be tried in Spain, now faces two court cases himself.
Earlier this month he was indicted for exceeding his authority by opening an investigation in 2008 into crimes committed by General Francisco Franco's regime in Spain that were covered by an amnesty.
Garzon also appeared before the Supreme Court in Madrid last week in a suspected bribery case involving payments he allegedly received for seminars in the United States.
Thousands joined an evening rally in Madrid which drew Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar as well as other artists and celebrities.
"Fascists get out of the courts," "Universal justice," and "More judges like Garzon," they cried marching out from the centre of the capital. Some help up black and white photographs of people who had disappeared during the Franco era.
Toni Garcia, one of the organisers, said a 1977 amnesty law should be scrapped as it prevented "investigations into crimes against humanity" during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and Franco's ensuing iron-fisted rule which ended only in 1975.
Hundreds turned out in the Spanish cities of Jaen, Valencia and Las Palmas in the Canary islands to protest at the "impunity of the Franco regime" and at what they said was a bid to turn Garzon into a criminal.
A small counter-demonstration was also held in Madrid by the far-right group Falange, an offshoot of the party that provided the ideological basis for Franco's dictatorship.
It intended to "defend the honour" of those who suffered "repression and killings" by supporters of the 1931-36 second Spanish republic, which was replaced by the Franco regime after a three-year civil war.
Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in Brussels said Saturday the decision by Spain -- which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency -- to try the magistrate was a blow for justice.
"Garzon sought justice for victims of human rights abuses abroad and now he's being punished for trying to do the same at home."
"The decision leaves Spain and Europe open to the charge of double standards and undermines the EU's credibility and effectiveness in the fight against impunity for serious crimes," she added.
A European Commission spokesman declined to comment on the case, saying it was a matter of national jurisdiction.
The rights group warned it could hamper Europe's attempts to seek justice "for current human rights crimes, be they in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sri Lanka."
Garzon dropped his probe into Franco-era crimes within months of launching it after state prosecutors and conservative politicians questioned his jurisdiction.
Human Rights Watch defended his decision to bypass the 1977 amnesty to investigate the crimes of the right-wing dictatorship.
"Garzon's decision not to apply Spain's amnesty is supported by international conventional and customary law, which impose on states a duty to investigate the worst international crimes, including crimes against humanity."