Former Spanish minister faces grilling from Argentinian judge over deaths

Rodolfo Martín Villa will testify via video over allegations of 12 killings

A veteran Spanish politician is due to testify via video-link on Thursday before an Argentinian judge who is investigating his alleged role in several violent deaths more than four decades ago during Spain’s turbulent transition to democracy.

Rodolfo Martín Villa (85), who was interior minister in the Spanish government in the late 1970s, is scheduled to give his testimony in the Argentinian embassy in Madrid, from where he will speak to the investigating magistrate María Servini, in Buenos Aires.

Mr Martín Villa is accused of being responsible for the deaths of 12 people during a wave of social unrest that followed the 1975 death of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. The plaintiffs, who are friends and family of victims of state violence from that period, claim he sanctioned and supervised abuses by the security forces and members of the far right, making him directly liable.

Among the victims were five striking workers who were shot dead in the Basque city of Vitoria in 1976.


Ms Servini has based her probe on the principle of universal justice, which allows an investigator to pursue a case involving serious human rights violations in another country regardless of conventional jurisdiction. This was the premise for Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón's detention of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998.

The Argentinian magistrate opened the case in 2010. In 2014, she issued a warrant for the arrest of Mr Martín Villa – which was subsequently withdrawn – and 19 other Spanish former ministers, police officers and members of the judiciary.

Mr Martín Villa has said he is willing to co-operate with the investigation in order to assert his innocence. He was even planning to travel to Argentina last year in order to testify in person before the judge. However, the Spanish judiciary, the previous conservative government, and more recently coronavirus, have caused the process to be delayed repeatedly.

Ahead of Mr Martín Villa’s testimony, four former Spanish prime ministers have issued public displays of support to the former minister, in an effort to discredit the allegations against him.

“Each country has chosen its own form of ending dictatorial or authoritarian periods to make way for democracy,” wrote the Socialist, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was prime minister between 2004 and 2011.

“And that was what Spanish society did over 40 years ago, via a process that began with the reform of Francoism and within months saw an irreversible break with it.”

Spanish activists have been highly critical of their own country's handling of the Argentinian investigation. Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, posted on Twitter a collage of archive photos of the former minister either greeting Franco, standing near him or doing the one-armed Francoist salute.

“It’s hard to agree with the four former prime ministers who see Rodolfo Martín Villa as a great defender of democracy,” Mr Silva wrote beneath the pictures.

Separately, on Wednesday a court in north-western Spain ruled that Franco's family must hand back to the state a property it inherited from the dictator. Franco had used the Pazo de Meirás estate as a holiday residence.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain