Spain split over attempts to investigate Franco's crimes

3rd January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The debate about the Franco era had been brewing already, becoming one of the hallmarks of 2008.

Madrid -- When a famous judge opened the first-ever judicial inquiry into the crimes of Spain's late dictator Francisco Franco in the autumn of 2008, it was as if he had unleashed an internal struggle within the national psyche.

The debate about the Franco era had been brewing already, becoming one of the hallmarks of 2008.

Judge Baltasar Garzon's attempt to look into 114,000 alleged killings in acts of repression during the 1936-39 civil war and Franco's ensuing 36-year dictatorship bitterly divided the nation, showing how difficult it still was for Spain to deal with the dictator's legacy.

Garzon finally dropped his inquiry, but the debate is far from over, and the case against Franco could end up in international courts.

The National Audience court, where Garzon works, has tackled human rights violations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. But Spain had avoided looking into its own human rights track record.

Franco's uprising against the leftist republican government sparked the civil war in which more than 500,000 people were killed.

Atrocities were committed on both sides. The forces of the so- called red terror, which opposed Franco, claimed an estimated 60,000 lives, including some 7,000 priests, monks and nuns.

Franco is held responsible for considerably more abuses, both during the war and after winning it.

While the Franco regime honored its own war victims, an estimated 30,000 republicans were left in anonymous mass graves.

After Franco died in 1975, politicians trying to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy sealed a so-called pact of forgetting, which was not broken until Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero became prime minister in 2004.

The Zapatero government pushed through the Law of Historic Memory, condemning Francoism and stipulating measures such as the removal of Francoist monuments. It also authorized support to citizens' associations exhuming bones of republicans from mass graves.

The 2007 law was watered down from an earlier version to avoid friction with the opposition conservative People's Party (PP), which was co-founded by a former Francoist minister.

Victims' associations and far-left parties slammed the law as far too timid. They also accused the government of dragging its feet in implementing the measure.

The government's alleged passivity set the stage for Garzon, Spain's "star judge," to intervene. Admirers see him as a tireless human rights crusader, while critics describe him as an opportunist in search of fame.

Garzon soared to worldwide notoriety when he made a failed attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for trial in 1998.

This time, Garzon named Franco and 44 of his late collaborators as suspects, arguing that they had made a systematic attempt to exterminate leftists in crimes against humanity. Republican children were also systematically given up for adoption, erasing their identities, according to the judge.

Garzon ordered the opening of dozens of graves believed to contain republican remains, including some graves inside Franco's huge mausoleum near Madrid and a mass grave allegedly holding the bones of Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain's most beloved modern poet.

Victims' associations and human rights groups hailed Garzon's inquiry, urging Spain to follow the example of dozens of other countries, which have moved to deal with human rights violations in their recent past.

However, Garzon's probe appeared set to run into practical difficulties, with the investigation and the eventual identification of tens of thousands of remains representing a formidable task.

Above all, however, the inquiry was lambasted by conservative media and politicians, who said it reopened old wounds.

No present-day Spanish politician would dare to speak favorably of Franco. But privately, conservative Spaniards may still display a certain respect for the dictator, saying his insurgency was justified by political instability. They might also note that he built up the country.

Garzon's inquiry divided the judiciary itself, with the public prosecutor's office appealing against it. The office argued that Garzon did not have jurisdiction over crimes, which had been covered by a 1977 amnesty granted to Franco's collaborators.

With Garzon's own court expected to side with the prosecutors, the judge finally abandoned his inquiry on the grounds that the suspects were dead. He nevertheless urged lower-level judges to pick up the investigation.

Victims' representatives accused the Zapatero government of having used the prosecutors as proxies to bury an affair, which had threatened to snowball out of control.

The far left has tabled parliamentary initiatives to relaunch the debate which, victims' representatives say, could end up at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Sinikka Tarvainen/DPA/Expatica

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