One feature of the Spanish Civil War period was the number of extra-judicial executions it saw. While both left and right carried out these kind of crimes, the white terror of the Nationalists seems to have claimed far more victims and been far more systematic. In the early stages of the war, leftists and other perceived enemies of the rightists in the Nationalist zone were exterminated in a highly organised fashion. When Spain made its transition to democracy after Franco's death, many of the perpetrators of these crimes were still alive, but they were amnestied by a law in 1977 covering crimes committed during the civil war period.
Now Baltasar Garzaon, a senior Spanish investigating judge, has reopened some of these cases through an astonishing legal sleight of hand. In many cases, the bodies of the Nationalists' victims were never found. Garzon argues that this makes these cases ones of kidnapping, and the continued non-appearance of the bodies (or the victims) means that the cases technically continued after 1977 and so are no longer covered by the amnesty. Suddenly some very old men are facing the prospect of having to answer in court for the crimes of their youth.
As can be expected, Garzon's action is proving decisive, with many adopting a best-not-go-there approach to the crimes of the civil war period. It is certainly possible to sympathise with this kind of argument, and in post-conflict situations it is often necessary to forget the horrors of the past in order to embed transitions to democracy or peaceful politics. At this stage, though, Spain has been a democratic state for thirty years, and it is hard to really see how the country could be thrown back into armed conflict by the reopening of some very old criminal cases.
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