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Carnations in hand, Julio López del Campo, 94, has come decade after decade to mark the spot where he believes the body of his brother, Mariano, was dumped in a pit along with other victims of the brutal regime of Francisco Franco in Spain.

“They took him to Guadalajara prison and in 1940 he was shot,” Julio said at the exhumation site next to a cemetery chapel. “Since then, I have been coming here every year. I bring carnations and leave a few. I will keep coming until my strength runs out.

Over 70 years later, the mass grave in Guadalajara, a small town just east of the Spanish capital, Madrid was finally unearthed and 26 bodies were found. Julio is now hoping that a genetic test will confirm that Mariano’s remains are among them.

The exhumation of Guadalajara was carried out by associations of volunteers who, together with some Spanish regional authorities, led the fight to recover the missing and restore them some of the dignity that was denied to them for more than half a century .

So far there has been little or no help from central Spanish authorities, and families have seen time pass as a generation quickly fades away. But now there is some hope.

A bill is making its way through parliament which Spain’s left-wing coalition government says will keep its promise to answer the plight of families. The bill aims to improve a 2007 law on historical memory which experts and activists say falls short of emptying the hundreds of mass graves that are still intact.

The bill faces obstacles on both sides in Parliament. The minority government needs the support of the small left parties who want it to go further. Meanwhile, the right-wing parties pledge to vote against.

If passed, the law will recognize the families of the victims as “the right to the truth” and make the central government responsible for the recovery and identification of the missing. To do this, he created a national DNA bank as well as a family support office.

Like tens of thousands of others, Mariano disappeared after returning home after fighting for the Second Spanish Republic, which Franco’s right-wing military uprising destroyed in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. He surrendered to the police and, despite promises he would not be hurt, was never seen again. He was 23 years old.

Only 19,000 bodies of around 114,000 victims of the Franco regime during and after the war were found in the four decades following the death of the dictator. The Spanish government calculates that it is likely that only 20,000 bodies are still in a condition to be found.

The president of the association who carried out the exhumation in Guadalajara and others across Spain is skeptical that the new law will do justice.

“These are just words that will not lead to action,” Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, told The Associated Press.

The bill “speaks the truth, but it focuses on the victims and says nothing about the torturers; he speaks of justice, but does not force anyone to be judged; he talks about reparation, but is not going to give anything back to the families of the victims of the dictatorship, ”said Silva, whose grandfather was also buried in a mass grave.

Over the past two years, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Party, has allocated 5 million euros ($ 5.6 million) to fund 300 mass grave exhumations and has provided additional budget € 5.5 million for further exhumations next year. .

But for Silva, the law will not stop what he calls the “customer policy” that has hampered body recovery efforts, because it will not force future governments to spend funds on exhumations. The previous government of the Conservative People’s Party, which currently leads the opposition, cut all central funds for exhumations when it was in power from 2011 to 2018.

The People’s Party has already warned that it will replace the new law once it returns to power because, in the words of MP Macarena Montesinos, it “seeks to destroy our legacy of concord” which has crossed ideological lines and made possible the Spanish Constitution of 1978 when democracy was restored.

One of the highlights of the bill is the creation of a new office of the public prosecutor for human rights and democratic memory. The government ministry that oversees the protection of Spain’s democratic memory said in an email that the office “will guarantee the right to investigate human rights violations during the (Spanish civil) war and dictatorship” .

Experts, including the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances, say this new figure will be paralyzed, however, until Spain changes its 1977 amnesty law. This law has freed thousands of political prisoners from the regime. Franco, but also prevented the prosecution of any politically motivated crime before that date.

The law was an essential part of Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. It is still defended by right-wing political parties and some center-left socialists who want to preserve the original foundation of the Spanish parliamentary monarchy, but others see it as an obstacle to justice for the families of the victims.

This week, a group of small regionalist and left-wing separatist parties introduced an amendment to the new bill that would overturn the amnesty law and deprive Felipe VI of his title of King of Spain. They argue that the monarchy is also a holdover from the dictatorship as Felipe’s father Juan Carlos was handed over to the throne by an aging Franco.

The amendments are unlikely to pass, but the Socialists and the junior member of their ruling coalition have felt pressured enough to tweak their own bill by adding wording they say will allow crimes to be prosecuted. of war or acts of genocide committed by the Franco regime. without reforming the amnesty law. Critics argue that this will not be enough.

The delicate negotiations in parliament point to the heart of a debate in Spain over the role of the monarchy, which many see as another keystone of the return to democracy in the late 1970s. Franco had hoped to maintain his rule. restoring Juan Carlos to the throne. Instead, the king lent his support to the country’s fragile democratic advances after Franco’s death, never again when he played a key role in defusing an attempted military coup by reactionaries in nineteen eighty one.

Margalida Capellà, professor of public international law at the University of the Balearic Islands and expert in historical memory, said that while the new law would be a big step forward, Spain will not be able to take stock of its past until that Juan Carlos his son Felipe and his Prime Minister take an important symbolic step.

“The reparation will only be complete when the Head of State and the Head of Government have asked for forgiveness,” Capellà said. “During the dictatorship his victims were of course not treated as such, but during the democracy it (also) took a long time for them to gain this recognition and what happened to their families was a disaster. This is the original sin of Spanish democracy.

___ Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona.


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