Spain's long road to peace… via Argentina

A winding and deserted road through the rocky, pine-covered foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama to the north-west of Madrid eventually leads to arguably the most controversial monument in Spain: Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen – a basilica at the heart of Spain’s long struggle to find peace with its past. This struggle has now entered a new phase, thanks to the efforts of an Argentinian judge.

A memorial to a dictator - and the thousands who died fighting against him

The Valley of the Fallen is reportedly one of Spain’s most visited monuments. As tourist attractions go it’s at the more macabre end of the spectrum. The first sign of it from the road is a 150 metre tall cross rising from a rocky outcrop. Underneath lies a vast mausoleum dug out of the granite - the last resting place of one of the 20th century’s most brutal leaders, General Francisco Franco.

The place was built on Franco’s orders between 1940 and 1958, with much of the labour carried out by Republican prisoners who had recently lost the Spanish Civil War.

Franco is buried on one side of an altar at the end of a silent, dark and seemingly endless corridor, his gravestone bearing fresh flowers and flickering candles. On the other side of the altar is the tomb of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange.

The monument is also home to the remains of thousands of Franco’s opponents killed during the Spanish Civil War. In a bizarre attempt to turn the site into a symbol of reunification after the war, Franco ordered Republican mass graves all over the country to be dug up and the bones reburied inside the basilica walls.

Debates rage about what to do with the place in a country that still, nearly 40 years after Franco’s death, hasn’t reached a consensus on how to remember its civil war and dictatorship past.

Franco-era abuses remain unpunished

One of the biggest obstacles to reaching a consensus is the fact that no-one has been brought to justice for human rights abuses under Franco’s leadership of Fascist forces during the civil war and later during his dictatorship. Leading Spanish Civil War historian Paul Preston estimates up to 200,000 people were executed on both sides during the civil war - three quarters by Franco's forces. Once the war ended a further 20,000 Republicans were killed - in total more than all the disappeared in South America's dirty wars of the 70s and 80s put together.

But an Amnesty Law brought in after Franco’s death - as a way to allow a smooth transition to democracy - means that no-one has ever been investigated or brought to book for these crimes. That means victims and their families still haven’t seen justice and have not been able to close this traumatic chapter in their lives.

The UN has asked Spain to repeal the law as it breaches international law, but Spain has so far refused. An Amnesty International report last year, Time passes: impunity remains, showed that Spanish courts are refusing to investigate past human rights abuses and that judges have thrown out at least 38 of 47 cases in recent years. This leaves victims and their families no option but to look abroad for justice, and Argentina has stepped into the breach.

Can Argentina investigate Spain’s historical abuses?

A Buenos Aires judge Maria Servini de Cubria last week asked Spain to arrest and extradite 20 of Franco’s former officials for human rights abuses. The two most prominent suspects in the investigation are former ministers from Franco’s cabinet - Rodolfo Martin Villa, 79, and Jose Uteri Molina, 86, who allegedly gave orders for the execution of five workers during a strike in Vitoria in March 1976.

The warrant has been issued under Universal Jurisdiction – the same legal principle used by Spanish judge Balthazar Garzón in 1998 which led to Pinochet’s arrest in London – which allows alleged crimes against humanity to be investigated by foreign courts. It is the only open investigation into Franco-era human rights abuses in the world.

It’s not the first time Judge Servini has tried to get Spain to face up to its past. Last year she issued warrants for the extradition of two policemen accused of torture under Franco, but Spain's Attorney General, sticking to form, refused to cooperate.

Back at the Valley of the Fallen, perhaps the oddest thing about the place is that there are no signs or information boards anywhere explaining its history or significance to Spaniards today. A physical silence that reflects the stalled national debate - we don’t know what to say, so we won’t say anything.

It’s time to move the conversation on. It’s nearly 80 years since Franco staged a coup that sparked the Spanish Civil War and led to more than 35 years of dictatorship. Next year will mark 40 years since his death. It’s been a long and rocky road, and for Spain to make peace with the past it must step up to the mark to ensure justice for Franco’s victims and their families.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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1 comment

Can you please do an update peice on what, if anything, has been done to right the lack of recognition of this horrible period in time for my country which seems to have been ignored around the world in general.

lauragsotomayor 4 years ago