Spain's leading judge today agreed to investigate the disappearances of tens of thousands of people during the 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing Franco dictatorship, many of whom are believed to be buried in mass graves. Baltasar Garzon ordered the opening of mass graves in 19 locations, including one near the southern city of Granada that is believed to contain the remains of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot by supporters of General Francisco Franco in 1936.
The decision comes in response to a petition by associations representing families of the missing, who asked that the bodies of their loved ones be located and the circumstances of their deaths clarified. The associations earlier this month presented the judge with a list of 133,708 people who disappeared during the civil war and the Franco dictatorship, which lasted until his death in 1975. Mr Garzon said today he would investigate the disappearances of 114,266 people on the list who went missing between July 17 1936 and December 1951.
The judge, who has investigated the crimes of dictators in Argentina and Chile, also called for the death certificates of Mr Franco and 34 officials of his regime to rule out any criminal prosecutions against them. And he asked the interior ministry to identify the top leaders of the far-right Falange organisation, which supported Mr Franco, with a view to possibly filing charges against any still alive.
A judicial source said the attorney general's office will probably appeal Mr Garzon's decision. Families of the missing welcomed today's ruling and the Spanish branch of Amnesty International hailed it "as a sign of hope for many families". Historians have estimated that about 500,000 people from both sides were killed in the civil war, which was sparked by Mr Franco's insurgency against the democratically elected left-wing Republican government.
It is believed that after Mr Franco's victory, around 50,000 Republicans were executed by Nationalist forces. While the regime honoured its own dead, it left up to 30,000 of its opponents buried in hundreds of unmarked graves across the country, according to victims' rights associations. In 1977, two years after Mr Franco's death, all political parties agreed to put the civil war and the dictatorship behind them, and Spain granted an amnesty for crimes committed under the general's iron-fisted rule.
But in recent years the "pacto de olvido" (pact of forgetting) began to crumble, as associations emerged seeking to recover the remains of those shot and thrown into unmarked mass graves. Their drive got a boost in 2007, with parliament's approval of the Law of Historical Memory which, for the first time, recognised the victims of the civil war and dictatorship. The law obliges local administrations to co-operate in the search for victims of the Franco regime. It also requires statues, plaques and other symbols of the dictatorship to be removed from public buildings.
Mr Garzon's decision "makes me happy and sad," said Emilio Silva, head of the Association for Historical Memory, which is fighting to rehabilitate the victims of Franco. "Happy because it is positive, in this country which has been so unfair to the victims, after 30 years of democracy. "Sad because there are many people who have died in the last 30 years of democracy," he said, referring to victims of retributions against the Franco regime.
Mr Garzon's move comes 10 years to the day after the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on the judge's request. The British government eventually refused to extradite him to Spain, citing health reasons. *AFP