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Spanish judge launches probe of atrocities under Franco

He orders urgent exhumation of 19 mass graves

By Daniel Woolls
Associated Press / October 17, 2008
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MADRID - Former dictator General Francisco Franco waged a systematic campaign to kill off political opponents during and after the Spanish Civil War, a judge said yesterday as he opened the first formal probe into that divisive time.

Judge Baltasar Garzon of the National Court ordered the urgent exhumation of at least 19 mass graves, which are believed to hold the remains of some of the tens of thousands of people who went missing during the 1936-39 war and the early stages of Franco's subsequent rightwing rule.

One grave is believed to contain the body of Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain's most acclaimed 20th-century poet who was executed in the early days of the war.

Garzon's criminal probe, ordered in a 68-page writ, is the culmination of a decade-old movement for Spain to come to grips with its past atrocities, as Argentina and South Africa have done.

"For relatives of the missing, the torment has been permanent because they did not know if the victims were executed, missing, or if they were alive or dead, which turned them into victims as well," Garzon wrote.

It is unclear, however, if Garzon will ever find anyone to charge. Franco died in 1975. But the judge ordered the Interior Ministry to help him identify former senior members of the Falange Espanola, the powerful political party that backed up the regime, to see if any are alive and can be charged.

An estimated 500,000 people died in the Spanish civil war and both sides committed atrocities against civilians. Franco rose up against an elected, leftist Republican government and ultimately ousted it, fighting against Spaniards who backed that government.

The judge said he respects the victims on both sides.

Still, Garzon is essentially focusing on people killed by the pro-Franco side. In his writ, he noted the Franco regime did a thorough accounting of pro-Franco civilians killed by the Republican side and gave them proper burials.

British historian Paul Preston, an acknowledged authority, puts this figure at about 55,000 people.

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