THE BLOG

Why Spain Must Investigate Franco-Era Crimes

18/06/2013 14:59 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

In the tourist office in Madrid's elegant Plaza Mayor last summer I asked what there was to see that had anything to do with the civil war. The woman behind the counter told me: "No hay casi nada. Es un tema cerrado" ("There's hardly anything. It's a taboo subject").

Then she paused and produced a map: "There is one thing," she said and drew a circle near the Royal Palace. "A monument to the war heroes."

The "heroes", it turned out, were Franco's nationalists killed during the brutal 1936-1939 war that tore Spain apart after he led a military uprising against the elected Republican government.

Those nationalists may be heroes to some, but not to the thousands of Franco's victims who either fled into exile or who were persecuted, arrested, tortured, killed and buried in mass graves during and after the civil war.

Leading Spanish Civil War historian Professor Paul Preston estimates up to 200,000 of Franco's opponents were executed during the civil war, and as many again between 1939 and 1945 - more than all the disappeared in South America's dirty wars of the 70s and 80s put together. Only Cambodia has more mass graves.

Despite this, and nearly 80 years since the coup d'etat that sparked the civil war, the victims and their relatives have still not seen justice. No-one has ever been brought to book for civil war and dictatorship-era crimes against humanity.

Now, a new report from Amnesty International says that prosecutions are looking increasingly unlikely as judges throw out more and more cases on grounds that break international law.

The report, Time passes:impunity remains, says Spanish courts are refusing to investigate past human rights abuses and that judges have thrown out 38 of 47 cases in recent years.

Because crimes against humanity committed under Franco's regime are covered by international law, victims can bring cases in foreign courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction. But Amnesty says Spain's Attorney General is refusing to cooperate with claims brought in an Argentinian court by preventing victims from testifying, and falsely claiming that Spain is investigating the cases, thus closing off another avenue to justice.

Another obstacle is the Amnesty Law, passed in 1977, the same year as the first post-Franco elections. This paved the way for the release of political prisoners, but also prevented prosecution of suspected perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Many credit this, along with the unofficial pact of forgetting - el pacto de olvido - agreed between the political left and right to "forget" the crimes committed by Franco's regime, as the key to the success of la transición.

This was the fraught period in the late 70s after Franco's death when King Juan Carlos, Franco's chosen heir, took over as head of state and to the surprise of many steered the country down the rocky road to democracy and into the modern world.

But as a result, public memory of that era was repressed for decades and the subject became taboo. The repercussions of these controversial decisions - the very existence of the Amnesty Law is a breach of international law - are felt acutely today as the children and grandchildren of Franco's victims seek justice.

Attempts have been made to recognise and remember Republican victims of the civil war and dictatorship (Nationalist civil war victims were honoured and hailed by Franco as heroes who fell "for Spain and for God", with monuments like the one near Madrid's Royal Palace).

But the introduction of a historical memory law in 2007 met with fierce opposition and its implementation has been hampered by a lack of political will and the economic crisis. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which has led the movement to dig up mass graves and identify the remains of victims, is facing funding problems which will compromise its ability to do its important work.

Back in Madrid, if you look carefully, there are in fact a number of things to see that mark the country's turbulent past.

Among them, three bunkers in the Parque del Oueste mark out a nationalist frontline, a wall in the Almudena cemetery has a plaque explaining that 3,000 Republicans were executed there between 1939 and 1944. And of course there's Picasso's visceral 1937 painting Guernica, which helped bring the brutality of the civil war to international attention, hanging in the wonderful Reina Sofía museum.

Remembering the past has been a fraught process in Spain, a fact perhaps reflected in the attitude of Madrid's tourist authorities who would rather you didn't explore it either. Many believe that old wounds should not be reopened, that Spain should look forwards not back. But lack of accountability means that the wounds - collective and individual - still haven't healed properly. For Spain to really make peace with its past, those responsible must be investigated and brought to justice.