Franco's regime of repression and murder revealed

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

A bid by far-right groups to target a magistrate has turned into an expose of dictatorship

AN UNPRECEDENTED event happened in the Spanish Supreme Court this week.

Thirty-six years after the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco, and 76 years after the military uprising against the Second Republic that brought him to power, stories of the republican victims of his repression are at last being told at the highest level of the Spanish judicial system, and broadcast to the world.

Dramatic scenes, rapidly relayed on the internet, featured first person reminders that the dictatorship had tortured and “disappeared” its opponents with impunity, and that thousands still lie abandoned in unmarked mass graves in Spain.

Her voice a whisper, Maria Martín López (81) described how, as a little girl, she was forced to drink a litre of castor oil in public after watching her mother being dragged away to be shot. She asked if the court wanted her to “wait another 75 years” for justice.

Josefina Musulén Jiménez spoke of hearing that her pregnant grandmother’s womb had burst when she was executed by Francoists. Only after the dictator died did she learn that the baby had, in fact, probably been saved, and “adopted” by childless parents sympathetic to the Franco regime.

Recent reports suggest that such secret “adoptions” occurred on a very significant scale.

Reviving such memories was hardly the intention of the far-right groups, including the Falange Española, who originally brought the charges that have resulted in this court case.

They were intent on pursuing the charismatic Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, precisely because he had agreed to investigate Franco’s crimes on the victims’ behalf. But their legal manoeuvre seems to have boomeranged.

Garzón is accused of abusing his powers in these investigations, because a 1977 amnesty drew a legal curtain over Spain’s past. There are currently two other cases against this controversial judge before the Supreme Court, and international human rights activists say he is being witch-hunted by the right.

Garzón’s own personal testimony, on Tuesday, was utterly undramatic.

He coolly explained how the case had been allocated to him through routine channels. He had not sought it out, as one of the judges suggested, “in pursuit of celebrity”.

And he insisted that he had acted very cautiously, handing over the case to colleagues as soon as serious questions were raised about his competence to pursue it.

The witnesses he called, however, were clearly designed to make a major public impact, and to demonstrate that the crimes of the dictatorship are not covered by any amnesty, because they fall into the category of crimes against humanity.

The historian Antonio Rodríguez Gallardo described the killings, which mostly occurred during the 1936-39 civil war and in the early 1940s, as a “systematic plan to eliminate to the political representatives of the republic”.

He argued forcefully that the victims’ relatives had an inalienable right to public recognition of the wrongs committed against their loved ones, to recovery of their bodies for decent reburial, and to some form of reparation.

He reminded the court that attempts had been made to do this after the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s. But constant fear of another military coup, symbolised by Lt Col Antonio Tejero’s violent assault on the Spanish parliament in 1981, had led to what he called a “suspension of memory” in Spanish society.

Despite the fact that many of the victims had been affiliated to the Socialist Party, that party made no moves on behalf of the republican “disappeared” during its 14 years in office. It was only in the late 1990s that the grandchildren of the victims felt secure enough to begin pushing their claims for recognition.

Local and regional courts repeatedly obstructed their efforts, the historian added, so they had no option but to appeal to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s special criminal court, where Garzón serves, in order to be heard.

As more witnesses are called next week, the case is likely to cause further embarrassment to Spain’s governing Partido Popular, a right-wing party always reluctant to condemn the dictatorship, with which it has many historical and personal links.