Spain’s new government has announced plans to establish a truth commission to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the regime of the former military dictator Francisco Franco, more than 40 years after his death.
Under a new law of historical memory, the criminal records of those convicted for opposing the regime will be wiped and organisations that venerate the memory of the dictator, such as the Fundación Francisco Franco, will also be outlawed.
Members of the foundation lay fresh flowers every day on Franco’s grave and its website carries eulogies to his memory. Franco, a contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini, came to power after the 1936-39 civil war and ruled until his death in 1975.
The Spanish government says it will take responsibility for making a census of the victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship. It will also open an estimated 1,200 mass graves.
Dolores Delgado, the justice minister, told parliament: “It’s not acceptable that people in their nineties who are desperately trying to recover their parents’ remains should be blocked by a judge or the arbitrary ruling of a local authority.
“Nor is it acceptable that Spain is, after Cambodia, the country with the highest number of disappeared in the world.”
Under an earlier historical memory law passed by the socialist government in 2007 the state had a duty to help families trace and exhume relatives buried in unmarked graves but that support was withdrawn after the right-wing People’s party came to power in 2011.
A key difference in the new proposal is that the government’s commission is taking the lead, whereas under the 2007 law it simply offered support to families trying to trace relatives who disappeared under the dictatorship.
The proposal has been greeted with caution by individuals and organisations who have spent years fighting for justice for the regime’s victims.
“If our sentences are annulled we will no longer be branded as criminals and some sort of normality will be restored after a 40-year delay,” José María “Chato” Galante told the Guardian.
Galante was convicted almost 50 years ago of “illicit association” and “illegal propaganda” and spent seven years in prison where he was tortured by the sadistic policeman known as Billy the Kid.
“This is a positive step but none of it makes sense unless the torturers and those who committed crimes against humanity are brought to justice,” he said.
An estimated 140,000 people disappeared during and after the civil war, not including those killed in combat. Despite repeated demands from the UN, Spain is the only democracy that hasn’t investigated state terrorism once a dictatorship had come to an end.
When democracy was restored in the years after Franco’s death, all sides agreed to maintain a pact of silence over the civil war and its aftermath.
“They shouldn’t be able to hide behind the 1977 amnesty law, which doesn’t apply to crimes against humanity,” Galante said. “All of the victims of Francoism should get justice for the crimes committed against them. Without that, reconciliation is impossible.”
According to official figures, the remains of 120,000 victims have been exhumed from 2,591 unmarked graves around the country. The areas with the largest number of graves are Andalusia in the south and the northern regions of Aragón and Asturias.
“We need to see what exactly they mean when they say the state is taking responsibility,” said Emilio Silva of the Association of for the Recovery of Historical Memory.
“What we need to see is the removal of the obstacles to prosecuting the crimes committed by the dictatorship, principally the amnesty law, but also a politically inspired judicial ruling that no one should be tried for those crimes. That ruling needs to be overturned.”
Delgado said Spain “was committed to uncovering the truth using the correct and effective measures that can guarantee reparation for the victims of Francoism”.
She added: “Spain can no longer continue to be identified in international forums as one of the least compliant countries in regard to resolutions on the violations of human rights, the right to truth, justice and reparations.”
The UN rapporteur, Pablo de Greiff, had in 2014 denounced the Rajoy government’s inaction regarding the “just demands” of the victims of Francoism.
It remains to be seen how far the law will extend to returning property that was confiscated often simply because the owner had been denounced as a “red”.
Silva says it is not clear how this law goes further than the one proposed by José Luis Zapatero’s government in 2007, which deliberately did not annul the criminal records of the victims.
“Thousands of those convicted under the regime had their property confiscated – homes, land, savings – and Zapatero’s government was afraid that if the sentences were annulled the confiscations would be, too, which would open the door to the heirs reclaiming what is rightfully theirs,” he said.