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Spain advances bill to honour dictatorship victims

Spanish lawmakers on Thursday gave the first stamp of approval to a bill which seeks to rehabilitate the memory of leftwing victims of Spain’s 1936-39 civil war and Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

The proposed law threatens to fuel tensions in a nation where public opinion is still divided over the legacy of the dictatorship that ended with Franco’s death in 1975.

Franco assumed power after the civil war in which his Nationalists defeated Republicans, leaving the country in ruins and mourning hundreds of thousands of dead.

While his regime honoured its own dead, it left its opponents buried in unmarked graves across the country.

The “Democratic Memory” bill, passed in the first reading by the lower house of parliament, will for the first time make unearthing the mass graves a “state responsibility”.

Up until now the search for the Franco-era disappeared has been carried out by voluntary associations, as was featured in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film “Parallel Mothers”.

The bill makes Spain “a better country and definitively turns the page on the darkest period of our history,” the minister in charge of the bill, Felix Bolanos, told parliament ahead of the vote.

It was approved with 173 votes in favour and 159 against.

– 114,000 disappeared –

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Tuesday “there are still 114,000 disappeared” in Spain, mostly Republicans. Only Cambodia has more forcibly disappeared people, he added.

“The State must exhume the remains of the victims of the Franco dictatorship,” the premier told parliament as he defended the bill.

The proposed law will also create a DNA database to help identify remains found in the mass graves, create a map of mass graves and prevent publicly-funded institutions from glorifying the dictatorship.

It will also annul the criminal convictions of opponents of the dictatorship and appoint a prosecutor who will probe human rights abuses during the civil war and dictatorship.

Previous attempts to bring Franco-era officials to justice in Spain have been blocked by an amnesty agreement signed by political leaders after Franco’s death.

The agreement was seen as essential to avoid a spiral of score-settling as they tried to unite the country and steer it towards democracy.

Sanchez has made the rehabilitation of the victims of the Franco era one of his priorities since coming to power in 2018.

In 2019 he had Franco’s remains removed from a vast mausoleum near Madrid and transferred to a discreet family plot.

– Repeal threat –

The main opposition Popular Party (PP) accuses his government of opening the wounds of the past.

It has vowed to repeal the law if returns to power after the next general election expected at the end of 2023.

Mariano Rajoy, a former PP prime minister, once bragged that he did not spend a euro in public money to enforce an earlier “Historical Memory” law passed by a previous socialist government in 2007 to tackle Franco’s legacy.

Far-right party Vox, meanwhile, has accused the government of “once again dividing Spaniards” with the bill.

The anger of the right is fuelled by a concession Sanchez made to far-left Basque independence party Bildu in order to secure its support for the bill in parliament.

Specifically the law calls for a report to be drawn up into possible human rights crimes committed between 1978, the year Spain’s democratic constitution was adopted, and the end of 1983.

In 1983 Spanish security forces set up a paramilitary squad called GAL which targeted suspected members of armed Basque separatist group ETA.

GAL is blamed for the deaths of 28 Basque extremists between 1983 and 1987.

This amendment — which was proposed by Bildu, the heirs of ETA’s former political wing — has even sparked dissent within Sanchez’s Socialist party.

Among the critics is former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, who governed between 1982 and 1996.