Spanish lawmakers pass bill honoring Franco-era victims

Opponents of Franco have been buried in unmarked graves across the country – Copyright AFP Jorge Guerrero

Mathieu Gorse

Nearly five decades after the death of Francisco Franco, Spanish lawmakers on Wednesday passed landmark legislation to honor the victims of the 1936-39 civil war and subsequent dictatorship.

Honoring those who died or suffered violence or repression during the war and the decades of dictatorship that followed has been a top priority for the left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez since he came to power in 2018.

The senate approved the law – which aims to pay tribute to those who died, were victims of violence or persecution during the Franco years – with 128 votes in favor, 113 against and 18 abstentions.

Known as the “Democratic Memory Act,” the legislation aims to advance the search for and exhumation of victims buried in mass graves and upend decades-old political beliefs.

“Today we take another step towards justice, reparation and dignity for all victims,” Sanchez tweeted after the vote.

But it threatens to fuel tensions in a country where public opinion is still divided over the legacy of the dictatorship that ended with Franco’s death in 1975.

The right-wing opposition People’s Party (PP) has pledged to overturn the law if elected in the next elections, which are due to take place by the end of 2023.

“History cannot be built on the basis of the oblivion and silence of the vanquished” of the civil war, we read in the preamble of the law.

Franco took power after the civil war in which his nationalists defeated the republicans, leaving the country in ruins and mourning hundreds of thousands of dead.

While his regime honored its own dead, it left its opponents buried in unmarked graves across the country.

– Find mass graves –

The bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament in July, will for the first time make the discovery of mass graves a “state responsibility”.

It also calls for the creation of a national DNA bank to help identify remains and the creation of a map of all mass graves in the country.

“The state must exhume the remains of the victims of the Franco dictatorship,” Sanchez told parliament in July.

“There are still 114,000 people who have forcibly disappeared in Spain, mostly Republicans,” he said, referring to people whose fate has been deliberately concealed.

Only Cambodia, he said, had more “disappeared” people than Spain, its population suffering atrocities under the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979.

Until now, associations have led the search for missing persons from the Franco era, as shown in the latest film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, “Parallel Mothers”.

The new legislation seeks to build on a 2007 “historical memory” law, which experts and campaigners say failed to excavate the hundreds of still intact mass graves scattered across Spain.

Sanchez’s predecessor, Mariano Rajoy of the PP, boasted that he had not spent a euro of public money to advance the provisions of the law.

– Cancellation of condemnations from the Franco era –

The new law will also overturn criminal convictions of opponents of the Franco regime and appoint a prosecutor to investigate human rights abuses during the war and subsequent dictatorship.

Previous attempts to bring Franco-era officials to justice in Spain were blocked by an amnesty agreement signed by political leaders after his death.

The deal was seen as key to averting a spiral of settling of scores as officials sought to unite the country and steer it towards democracy.

And the law will also mean that for the first time, “stolen babies” will be recognized as victims of Francoism.

These babies were newborns who were taken from “unsuitable” mothers – Republican or left-wing opponents of the regime, then single mothers or poor families.

But not everyone was happy with the outcome of the vote, with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) saying the new legislation did not go far enough.

The law “perpetuates the impunity of the Francoists” because it leaves the amnesty agreement in force, “it will not bring anyone to justice” or “compensate the families of the disappeared”, she said in a press release.

The PP accused the government of unnecessarily opening the wounds of the past with the law.

This is Sanchez’s second major effort to tackle Franco’s legacy.

In 2019, he had Franco’s remains removed from a vast grandiose mausoleum near Madrid and transferred to a discreet family plot, despite the opposition of relatives of the late dictator and right-wing parties.