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Argentine judge invokes universal justice to probe Spain's Franco-era crimes

The descendants of victims of the Spanish Civil War may finally be about to see justice done after an Argentine judge opens a case into war-time murders and human rights abuses.

Spanish General Francisco Franco

The Franco regime was known for its brutality

Spain is well known internationally for its efforts to bring Latin American dictators to justice. But now these roles have been reversed. An Argentine judge is petitioning Spain to investigate Franco's civil war crimes.

Every Thursday night, hundreds of people march to protest against impunity in central Madrid. Many are elderly, carrying placards bearing the images of victims killed by right-wing death squads during the Spanish Civil War in the mid-to-late 1930s.

Among the marchers is 79-year-old Hilda Farfante Gallo, who wears a black and white photo of her parents around her neck. Hilda's parents were murdered when she was five years old.

Both were teachers. They still lie in unmarked graves and their assassins have never been brought to justice.

In fact, Spain has yet to investigate any of the human rights abuses committed during the civil war - or during General Franco's subsequent 40-year dictatorship - due to an amnesty law.

New hope

Two young girls take refuge in the mouth of a sewer during a fascist raid in Madrid, Spain

The Civil War effected the entire peninsula

But demonstrators on Thursday were optimistic that this might be about to change. A crusading Argentine judge has taken an initial step toward opening the first investigation into human rights abuses during the war.

In Buenos Aires, Maria Servini took up the case of examining the systematic murder of over 100,000 opponents of the Franco regime, which rights groups say amounts to crimes against humanity.

Invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, the formal petition from the Argentine judge indicated that her court would investigate allegations of genocide, tens of thousands of assassinations and the fate of stolen children - if Spain could not demonstrate it would do so.

Healing old wounds

Argentine emigre Rodolfo Franco had two uncles murdered by his country's military regime. He thinks the case will be good for Spain.

"It sounds quite promising because it could open a new way to investigate what happened in the civil war. It seems very difficult to go on with this in Spain because of political interests," he says.

"It's a very difficult subject, even now, in Spain. I think it's a good thing that international judges can interfere and judge certain things, because they are, in a way, more impartial than local people."

Francisco Franco stands on a timber tribune for more than five hours and takes the salute of a quarter million troops

Franco ruled Spain for almost 40 years

The Spanish government has not yet responded formally to the petition but has said it will cooperate.

Universal justice

Ironically, Spain is more used to dishing out universal justice than receiving it. The crusading Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, for example, was central to the indictment of former Chilean despot Augusto Pinochet.

Like Maria Servini, Garzon relied on the principal of universal jurisdiction in his efforts to bring Pinochet to justice.

According to that principal, states can claim jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside their borders, but only if the crimes are deemed crimes against all and are too serious to be overlooked as mere discrepancies between legal systems.

But amnesty laws have made prosecution over Franco-era crimes a tricky business. Garzon fell afoul of the laws when he opened an investigation into atrocities carried out by Franco's regime.

He was suspended and is now awaiting trial on charges of "distorting the law," to the anguish of victims' families.

Long way to go

Baltasar Garzon

Garzon is accused of breaking amnesty laws

Campaigner Emilio Silva said that Spain was still a long way from addressing its past.

"The discussion in Spain is like Chile, Argentina," he says. "The same arguments all the time: 'We have to look to the future.' I think today there is still a lot of sociological Francoism in Spanish society, and they don't want to look at their crimes.

"We are crying 'killers' about the [Basque] terrorist group ETA, but in Spain there are a lot of killers, because we had an amnesty law in 1977."

With Garzon under indictment, many Spaniards now feel the Argentine court case is the last hope for justice.

Author: Hazel Healy, Madrid (dfm)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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