Monday, November 24, 2008

Crusading Judge's Exit From Probe Of Civil War-Era Mass Graves May Leave Truth In The Ground

A Tortuous Path To Spain's Painful Past

Crusading Judge's Exit From Probe Of Civil War-Era Mass Graves May Leave Truth In The Ground By Christine Spolar Chicago Tribune November 19, 2008,0,4920312.story


PINILLA DE LA VALDERIA, Spain-Many people in this verdant countryside know their hills and valleys hide a terrible treasure from the Spanish Civil War: Skeletons of loved ones, just a few generations gone.


In recent weeks, a judicial order had given them hope that Spain might unearth some of those dead and begin a belated reckoning with that bloody period in their history. National Court Judge Baltasar Garzon, famous for his international pursuit of war criminals, ordered a historic probe of suspected mass graves to consider whether crimes against humanity were committed by the late Gen. Francisco Franco and his supporters during that time of turmoil.


On Tuesday, Garzon backed down, dropping his role in the case after prosecutors challenged his jurisdiction. But he called for lower-court judges to pick up where he left off, demanding that the Franco regime -during the war and for years beyond-answer to Spain's pain.


It was not right "to grant [Franco and his supporters] impunity, forgiveness and judicial oblivion, labeling their actions as mere political repression," Garzon said in a brief that ended his personal quest.


It was the latest twist in a controversy that threatened to force Spain to confront its past, something Garzon judged it finally ready to do as he set out in search of evidence of 70-year-old war crimes. For the first time, he had openly asked what happened to the tens of thousands of people who vanished during a 1936 military uprising and the four decades afterward.


With his original 68-page judicial warrant, filed in October, Garzon had broken the silent pact that, since Franco's death in 1975, had allowed Spain to push smoothly toward stable democracy. In a sort of compromise for their shared future, adversaries from right and left had passed an amnesty law that simply closed the curtain on wartime prosecutions.


Last year, the parliament passed a sweeping law condemning Franco's rule and offering restitution to its victims. But Garzon demanded that Spain go further.


He ordered 19 suspected mass graves to be opened, including one believed to hold Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain's most heralded 20th Century poet, who was executed in 1936.


A panel of prosecutors on the High Court balked, asking for time to review Garzon's order and decide whether it would have legally overridden the amnesty law. On Tuesday, Garzon acceded to their challenge, but he indicated he was doing it only so that lower courts might move more quickly.


It remains unclear whether local judges will indeed take up Garzon's mission-or have any incentive to do so.


Garzon alleged that skeletons in the graves, if identified as Spaniards who opposed fascism, would be evidence that Franco and 34 aides and generals planned mass murder and committed a "crime against humanity."


Franco and his forces systematically eliminated left- wing opponents, Garzon said in a legal finding that immediately riled right-wing opposition in Spain. Popular Party founder Manuel Fraga derided the Garzon initiative as "nonsensical" and a "grave error to resuscitate this tragedy." The conservative newspaper El Mundo called the decision "quite simply crazy."


Garzon's order-which claimed that 114,266 people were "disappeared" under Franco-was supplemented with data from grass-roots groups. Garzon charged that criminal killings started with the military uprising of 1936 and continued through 1951, far past the end of the actual war in 1939.


The legal initiative came last month as a small band of gravediggers searched a wooded area near Leon, urged on by the still-bright memory of a 107-year-old man. His story was a typical tip that volunteers from the non- profit Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory work diligently to check out. The old man said he was forced to dig graves in 1936.


Helpers drove a backhoe into the mossy earth and appeared to end another civil war mystery. The bones of five men were lifted from the ground and a new mass grave was documented.


The recovery association has excavated 120 mass graves since 2000. Emilio Silva, a onetime journalist who has spearheaded the movement to document losses from the conflict, said the war still throws a shadow across the country's psyche. Even today, when his elderly aunt talks about the war, she whispers. Silva said he believed Garzon's effort was admirable.


"Fear stopped all the questions. The government structure changed after Franco, but the social structure-who knows whom and who relied on whom-didn't change with democracy," he said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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