Spain takes step to prosecute Franco-era crimes

by Lorraine Williamson

MADRID – With an amendment to the draft Democratic Law of Remembrance, the Spanish government is taking a legal step to prosecute Franco-era crimes. 

The 1977 amnesty law hitherto in effect was used to release the regime’s political prisoners. And, furthermore, it helped protect those suspected of crimes committed during the dictatorship. 

The initiative for the changes comes from the two coalition parties PSOE and Unidas Podemos. The agreement between the two groups was reached three days before November 20, Franco’s death anniversary in 1975. The amendment aims to force a reinterpretation of the 1977 amnesty law, without repealing it entirely. 

The PSOE has flatly rejected overturning the amnesty law completely. It was approved during Spain’s so-called “transition” to democracy in the wake of Franco’s death. And, moreover, was used to secure the release of the regime’s political prisoners from prison. 

However, the legislation later served as a means to stop attempts to prosecute key figures of the dictatorship for possible crimes committed before 1977. 

The centre-left coalition government does not have a majority in the Spanish parliament. And therefore needs support from other parties to pass legislation. Negotiations appear to be underway with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). They have supported the government of PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on a number of issues and will support the changes. However, this will be subject to certain conditions. The government will also have to negotiate with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in an effort to get them on board with the amendment tabled today. 

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No limitation period 

The amendment, submitted at the last possible moment by the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, reads: “All laws of the Spanish State, including Law 46/1977 of October 15 of Amnesty, shall be interpreted and applied in accordance with conventional international law and customary law. And in particular international humanitarian law, according to which war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture are deemed not to have a statute of limitations and cannot be subject to amnesty.” 

This change would open the door to crimes committed under the Franco regime by the Spanish legal system. So far, such attempts to do so have failed as a result of the amnesty law. In this case, it mainly concerns the initiatives to this end by the former Supreme Court judge Baltasar Garzón. In fact, to date, the only legal proceedings related to the Franco era that has made any progress have been filed in Argentina. 

Annulment unwise 

Annulling the Amnesty Law, as the ERC argued, is unwise, according to the Spanish Communist Party and Unidas Podemos. The legislation was a major achievement for the Democrats at the time. However, the interpretation of this amendment is supported to prevent the Amnesty Law from being used as a shield for those suspected of Franco-era crimes. 

It remains to be seen whether such a change will ultimately be successful in the courts. The Supreme Court has established a very clear case law against any prosecution of Franco-era crimes. 

Valley of Cuelgamuros 

The PSOE and Unidas Podemos have tabled a total of about 30 amendments to the Democratic Remembrance Act. Below is the name change from the Valley of the Fallen to its original name, the Valley of Cuelgamuros. The Valley of the Fallen is a controversial place. It was built by Franco as a place of ‘reconciliation’ after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). But it also became the dictator’s resting place. And as such a powerful symbol for the far-right, until his exhumation was approved by Congress and carried out in October 2019. 


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