Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Argentina Investigates Human Rights Crimes of Spain’s Franco Era

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 28 2011 (IPS) - A judge in Argentina has begun to investigate human rights crimes committed during Spain’s civil war and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1936-1975).

Remains of Franco-era victims unearthed in Zaragoza, Spain.  Credit: Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory

Remains of Franco-era victims unearthed in Zaragoza, Spain. Credit: Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory

This month, federal judge María Servini asked Spain for information on Spanish military officials, as part of a new investigation based on a lawsuit filed in April 2010 by human rights lawyers in Argentina in the name of relatives of victims of the Franco dictatorship.

The judge requested the names of military officers involved in the Franco regime; lists of victims of forced disappearance and summary execution; lists of children who were stolen from their parents during the dictatorship; and the names of companies that allegedly benefited from the forced labour of political prisoners.

Servini initially shelved the lawsuit, on the grounds that investigations had been opened in Spain. But the Cámara Federal, a second instance court, ordered her to investigate whether Spain’s justice system was effectively taking action.

The case thus landed back in the hands of Servini who, invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, issued the request for a wide range of information, such as the addresses – or death certificates – of agents of the regime.

The human rights lawyers who brought the suit presented Servini with a new document in which they stress that, after 36 years of dictatorship and 36 years of democracy in Spain, “not only is there not even a truth commission, but not one single child has had his or her identity restored.

“The case was opened in Argentina because everything indicated that not even with a socialist government did the will exist for it to prosper there,” one of the Argentine lawyers, Beinusz Szmukler, told IPS, referring to the government of socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004-Dec. 21, 2011).

To make his point, he pointed to the case against Spain’s internationally renowned judge Baltasar Garzón, who was suspended from his post in May 2010, accused of overstepping his jurisdiction for starting to investigate crimes committed during that country’s 1936-1939 civil war and subsequent dictatorship.

Garzón had applied the principle of universal jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed by the dictatorships of Argentina (1976-1983) and Chile (1973-1990), when amnesty laws still blocked legal action in these two South American countries.

But when the judge launched a probe into human rights abuses in his own country, which were covered by an amnesty issued by parliament in 1977, “he was shoved aside, and now he runs the risk of losing his career as a judge,” said Szmukler.

Spain’s Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory – which helps relatives search common graves for victims of the civil war and dictatorship – and a dozen human rights groups in Argentina are behind the lawsuit filed in Buenos Aires on behalf of the families of victims of the Franco era.

Citing many of the arguments presented by Garzón, the human rights lawyers filed the lawsuit in Argentine court in the name of six relatives of victims, who live in Argentina. The group of plaintiffs will grow in the next few months, because new cases of relatives are being presented, said Szmukler.

One of the plaintiffs is 91-year-old Darío Rivas, who is seeking justice in the murder of his father, Severino Rivas, purportedly killed in 1936 by members of Spain’s fascist Falange movement.

Severino Rivas was mayor of the coastal village of Castro de Rei in the northwestern Spanish province of Galicia when he was seized and shot. He was missing for decades until his remains were found in an unmarked common grave and handed over to Darío in 2005.

“Mr. Severino Rivas and the families of Inés García Holgado (another plaintiff) were the victims of a homicide technique perfected by the Spanish Falange: ‘paseos’ (strolls) that ended with a bullet to the back of the neck,” the lawsuit says.

Holgado is the grand-niece of Elías García Holgado, who was mayor of the town of Lumbrales and legislator in the western province of Salamanca when he was arrested in 1936. He was executed a year later.

The lawsuit says these circumstances are similar to those of thousands of other people killed in “what constituted a systematic, widespread, deliberate plan to terrorise Spaniards who backed representative government, by means of the physical elimination of its most representative exponents.”

In their brief, the human rights lawyers note that Spanish courts actively exercised universal jurisdiction in cases of crimes against humanity committed in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala.

The aim of the legal action is not to question Spain’s amnesty law, which was recently upheld in the face of an attempt to repeal it, but to exercise universal jurisdiction in Argentina with respect to crimes “that offend and injure humanity, and are still unpunished,” the lawyers stated.

Human rights organisations put the number of victims of forced disappearance during Spain’s civil war and the Franco dictatorship at 113,000. Some 2,500 mass graves have been located and excavated over the last few years.

In addition, there are an estimated 30,000 cases of children who were stolen in Spain and given or sold to adoptive families. But no legal action has been taken in any of these cases in Spain, and the now-adult children have never discovered their real identities or been reunited with their biological families.

In solidarity with these cases, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have joined the case as co-plaintiffs. The Grandmothers association was created to search for the children who were “disappeared” along with their parents in Argentina during the dictatorship and raised by military couples or families who adopted them in good faith.

Szmukler and the rest of the lawyers say they will not be satisfied with a declaration merely recognising that the genocide took place, and promising to find out the truth about what happened.

There is a precedent for that in Argentina. The descendants of people killed in the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire, which claimed some 1.5 million lives, successfully pressed for this South American country to officially recognise the genocide, in April.

“In the case of Spain, when we presented the lawsuit there were at least 13 (dictatorship-era) military officers still alive, and there are also the cases of 30,000 people who are unaware of their origins and identity,” the lawyer said.

“We want an in-depth investigation, to determine the truth and establish who was responsible. If Spain does not do it, we will do it here. I hope we get cooperation,” he added.

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