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HISTORICAL MEMORY

Dwindling number of Franco-era victims plead for "last hope" truth commission

"History and reason is on our side. The institutional omission is as clamorous as it is shameful"

"We're dying. There are very few of us left. Our last hope lies in the truth commission," said Julia Merino, 79, to a packed audience inside the Madrid headquarters of the labor union CCOO. This daughter and niece of execution victims during the Franco regime was there last Sunday, along with experts in law and human rights, to introduce a new initiative, the Platform for a Truth Commission.

This umbrella association brings together over 40 groups which have begun "a national and international campaign" to demand the creation of a commission to clear up the crimes of the Civil War (1936-1939) and the Franco regime, which ended with the dictator's death in 1975. Following the United Nations' recommendation, 40 countries have created such investigative bodies over the last three decades.

From Buenos Aires, where he is about to testify before an Argentinean judge investigating Franco's crimes, the former Spanish High Court judge, Baltasar Garzón, who is famous worldwide for pursuing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, sent a message of support to the new initiative, which he is endorsing through his foundation. Garzón defended the need for a truth commission to investigate "the crimes of the Francoist dictatorship, the suffering endured by those who were forcefully made to disappear, by the victims of assassinations, extrajudicial executions, summary trials, baby theft" and to analyze "the corresponding fees in damages and restitution."

An umbrella association has begun "a national and international campaign"

"History and reason is on our side. The institutional omission is as clamorous as it is shameful," Garzón added.

Former Unesco director Federico Mayor Zaragoza, another sponsor of the project, sent the following message: "The truth commission is, as has been demonstrated by other countries, the best way to design another possible world that we long for."

The lawyer Cristina Almeida, a longtime member of Spain's Communist Party, also spoke out against some sectors' desire to bury the past. "In order to forget, as they ask us to, first we need to know. Everyone wants to turn the page of war, the page of dictatorship; but in order to turn a page [...] first you have to read it. And if they don't want to read it, we're going to force them to. This country shouldn't be afraid of its own history. It should be afraid of ignorance." Jaime Ruiz, president of the Social and Democratic Memory Association, announced that the group will take its demands to the European Parliament and the UN, to tell them about "the more than 120,000 missing persons, the exiles numerous enough to fill a second country" and about the state of "abandonment" they are in.

Araceli Manjón, a professor of criminal law at Madrid's Complutense University, explained that when the legal avenues of investigation of Francoist crimes were closed off ("Any judge who tried it could end up like Garzón," she said, in reference to the judge's suspension from duties), the only option left to victims is a truth commission, which has no legal force. "Many witnesses are dead, but there are a few left, there is circumstantial evidence, and above all there is archival material."

Paco Tena, a sociologist and spokesman for a federation of 24 support groups for stolen babies, insisted on the need for a truth commission given the difficulties that victims face accessing "church, medical and civil records." "This is a statewide problem, not the problem of a few families," he added. "And it is an international problem, because there are Spanish boys and girls, especially girls, who were exported to Morocco, France, Venezuela, the US and Mexico, sold on commission. This country cannot remain indifferent to something so dramatic."