Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SPAIN: Digging Up Past Atrocities

Tito Drago

MADRID, Oct 9 2008 (IPS) - When it seemed that the atrocities committed during the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war and the 1939-1975 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco were buried once and for all, the debate has been reopened.

Estimates put the number of people killed by Franco’s Nationalist death squads and kangaroo courts during and after the civil war at 150,000, and by the left, especially the Communist Party, at around 60,000.

In addition, during the dictatorship, 400,000 people were imprisoned and 650,000 were forced into exile, according to official figures.

But the killings and massacres from that period have not been investigated, because they are covered by a 1977 amnesty law.

On Oct. 3, the Spanish parliament approved four decrees for implementing the Law of Historical Memory, which was passed in January. One of the aspects of the law that were codified last week establishes monetary reparations for the victims’ families, and another publicly clears up the names of the many victims who were shot by firing squad after being tried by military tribunals under the dictatorship. The law declared these hearings “illegitimate.”

Compensation to the families for each victim would start at 135,000 euros (186,000 dollars). People who were injured will also be indemnified, with the sum depending on the degree of disability caused by the injury.

Two weeks earlier Judge Baltasar Garzón, who is internationally renowned for his attempts to bring former military leaders of Latin American dictatorships to justice, including Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), ordered authorities in Spain to provide information on human rights crimes committed during the civil war and the 36-year Franco dictatorship.

He will study the information in order to decide whether the crimes constitute crimes against humanity, which would give the National Court, a high court in Spain, the jurisdiction to investigate complaints presented by the associations of victims’ families.

Garzón’s decision was prompted by complaints filed by the associations for the recovery of the historical memory, which on their own have been collecting oral and written testimonies about the victims of the Franco regime, and have investigated unmarked mass graves into which their bodies were dumped.

According to a September report in El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, 4,054 bodies have been exhumed from 171 mass graves around Spain since 2000, thanks to the work of a number of associations for “the recovery of historical memory” and other groups of victims’ relatives, which have mushroomed around the country over the last few years.

Fernando Magán, lawyer for the Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory of Valladolid (ARMHV), a district in northwestern Spain that was among the areas hardest hit by the Franco regime’s brutal repression, estimates that more than 3,000 people were killed by firing squad in that district alone during the civil war.

He said many of the bodies have not been located yet, and estimated that in Spain as a whole, the remains of around 130,000 people have yet to be found.

In response to Garzón’s decision to collect information, Magán said the efforts of his association and the other groups of victims’ families had “finally started to get somewhere.”

But while the judge’s decision has been strongly backed by the associations and other human rights groups, and was given discreet support by the ruling socialist party, it came under fire from the centre-right Popular Party (PP).

Another critical voice is that of retired colonel Julián Delgado, one of the founders of the Democratic Military Union (UMD), a group of anti-Franco junior officers created during the dictatorship. After the restoration of democracy in the wake of Franco’s death, Delgado was head of the Guardia Urbana city police force in Barcelona, one of Spain’s biggest cities.

Delgado told IPS that he does not think it is right to open up a judicial investigation into the victims of firing squads because “it is absurd to stir up the pain.”

“This is another example of the kind of thing that we are used to from Judge Garzón,” he complained.

“It is necessary to distinguish between those who died on the war front and those who were killed in the rearguard, in a confrontation that left many kinds of victims. All of them deserve respect, but they should not all be lumped in together,” he argued.

The retired colonel clarified, however, that “another thing is for the victims and their families who were not indemnified to receive support from the state and compensation, so they can have closure.” But “all of this should be done without the desire for revenge that is cropping up, and which does no good to democracy,” he maintained.

With respect to the number of victims who have not yet been identified, there are no precise figures, although Garzón has received a list of 130,000 names of people who were presumably killed.

But it is very difficult to identify remains exhumed from mass graves by matching DNA with samples from victims’ relatives collected in a DNA bank. In Valladolid, for example, the ARMHV has investigated the remains of 1,600 people who were executed, and was only able to identify 125.

Another problem is that in the post-war period, people who died of natural causes or accidents were also buried in common graves when their families were unable to afford a proper burial.

Under the Law of Historical Memory, victims will be officially recognised and honoured, including foreigner volunteers who fought in the international brigades that backed the democratically elected leftwing Second Republic government that took office in 1931. The volunteers numbered over 35,000, and came from around 50 different countries.

One of them, 94-year-old Theo Francos who lives in France, told El País that he felt sad that so many members of the international brigades gave their lives to change the world, but failed to do so.

With regard to the decision by the government of socialist Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero to grant Francos Spanish citizenship, he said “it’s symbolic, but I fought for Spain for three years and I would like to be a citizen of that country.”

José Antonio de Santiago-Juárez, minister of the presidency in the Junta de Castilla-León (the regional government in the province of Castilla-León), where Valladolid is located, criticised Garzón’s decision to dig up the past.

Like other critics, Santiago-Juárez of the PP said the judge’s decision is aimed at “drawing attention away from the economic crisis in Spain” to help the Zapatero administration.

Garzón ordered municipal governments, cabinet ministries, parishes, archives and Spain’s bishops’ conference – which has files on funerals – to hand over any information they have on killings and disappearances committed during the civil war and the dictatorship. One of the aims, say analysts, is to eventually draw up a complete list of the names of the victims.

Another controversy was triggered when 93-year-old Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who was in charge of public order in Madrid during the civil war, was asked about the massacre of up to 2,000 people in Paracuellos del Jarama, near the capital, and denied any involvement or responsibility.

“I put that mission in the hands of my associates who were in charge of security during the transfer” of prisoners, he said.

According to Carrillo, “people who had suffered fascist attacks went after them (the Nationalist soldiers who were being transferred as prisoners) and the (Republican) guards who had them in custody did not defend them.”

“If I had any responsibility in the matter, it was the inability to control and punish those who were responsible…It was a terrible tragedy, but it would have been much worse if (the prisoners) had joined the army that was attacking Madrid,” he maintained.

Spain has thus begun to confront its past, but there is still a long road ahead. One example is the case of the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who was taken from his home to a lonely hillside and shot on Aug. 19, 1936 by Franco’s Nationalist forces.

García Lorca’s remains may be examined if Garzón authorises the exhumation of the bodies of two other people who were shot alongside the writer, as demanded by their families.

But there are cases for which no judicial order was needed in order to locate and identify remains. The bodies of some 1,200 people were found in a mass grave that was discovered by chance when a botanical garden was created in Mérida, the capital of the province of Extremadura, on the border with Portugal.

The question now is whether a complete list of the atrocities and victims will come to light, or whether those who are opposed to digging up the past and argue that it is necessary to look to the future, in unity, peace and democracy, will once again win out.

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