Spain debates the extent of Franco's human rights abuses

More than three decades after the death of Spain's dictator Francisco Franco, many elderly people still close the curtains and lower their voices before speaking his name, reported dpa.

Despite Spain's attempts to leave the Franco era (1939-75) behind, the dictator's ghost continues to loom large over the nation, with increasing calls for an investigation into his human rights abuses and a definitive settling of accounts with his legacy.

An investigation proposed by a judge has raised new questions about the extent of those violations and whether the Franco regime committed crimes against humanity.

Franco's uprising against the leftist republican government unleashed the 1936-39 civil war in which foreign volunteers joined the republicans in a prelude to the World War II fight against Fascism. About half a million people were killed on both sides.

After Franco won the war, his regime investigated the "red terror" by the left and paid tribute to Francoist war victims, but none of the subsequent democratic governments investigated the fate of Franco's victims during and after the war.

"We still don't know what happened in half of the country," historian Francisco Espinosa told the daily El Pais.

Many of Franco's opponents were not even judged by war tribunals, but shot dead on a whim. Mass graves remain scattered in unmarked places around the country.

Repression of opponents continued in the post-war years and, to a lesser extent, for decades afterwards. Estimates of the number of victims range from tens of thousands to more than 100,000.

The number has never been established, because after Franco's death, democratic Spain decided to look to the future and granted the dictator's collaborators a collective amnesty in an attempt to heal a divided nation.

It was not until after the 2004 election victory of Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that a democratic government made a clear move to break the official silence, with the passing of the so-called Law of Historical Memory to rehabilitate Franco's victims.

Opposition from the conservative People's Party (PP), which still has a former Francoist minister in its ranks, made the government water down the law.

It contains provisions such as the removal of Francoist monuments, but offers only vague support to the dozens of associations and historians who have increasingly started investigating killings and exhuming republican remains from mass graves.

Difficulties in accessing archives dispersed around the country and the frequent lack of official financial support have not discouraged the activists, who have dug up and given new burials to more than 4,000 people, according to a figure quoted by El Pais.

"To say to someone: 'this is your father's body' and to see him cry out of happiness is very moving," said Jose Rojas, a volunteer who has participated in 15 exhumations.

The debate about Franco's crimes was relaunched by National Court judge Baltasar Garzon, who requested information on killings and disappearances from parishes, certain city halls and ministries, and the priests guarding Franco's mausoleum.

The judge's initiative was seen as an attempt to press the authorities to establish a census of the victims.

Experts are now debating whether Franco had a systematic plan to exterminate opponents and whether his abuses could be classified as crimes against humanity.

The National Court has investigated alleged human rights crimes committed in countries ranging from Chile to China, but some Spanish experts consider that it is not qualified to look into similar ones at home, because they have come under the statute of limitations or are covered by the 1977 amnesty.

Garzon's move has also reignited the controversy around the mass grave believed to contain the bones of poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was executed for being a leftist and a homosexual near Granada early on in the war.

The family of a teacher buried in the same grave has asked Garzon to order it to be reopened, but the Lorca family opposes the exhumation of his remains, saying it would "falsify history."

Those who ordered or committed the atrocities are nearly all dead, but activists hope that Garzon's initiative could force the government to assume responsibility for exhumations and eventually even lead to the creation of a thruth commission.

Such plans are, however, opposed by the conservatives, with media close to the PP accusing Garzon of seeking notoriety or of trying to help Zapatero to divert Spaniards' attention from the deepening economic crisis.

There was no need to reawaken "a past of hatred and confrontation between Spaniards," the daily El Mundo wrote.

A thorough investigation into the Franco era could raise uncomfortable questions, investigator Sergio Galvez observed.

"Is Spanish society prepared" to look into who benefitted economically from Francoism, and into their position within Spain's current power structure, he asked.

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