Search for Justice: Argentina Helps Shed Light on Franco Regime

By Helene Zuber

Photo Gallery: Victims of Franco Regime Seek Justice Photos
Privatarchiv José María Galante

Victims of Spain's Franco regime are hoping that recent legal moves made in Argentina will help bring justice in the crimes committed during the dictatorship.

José María Galante, an engineering and economics student, was arrested four times, starting in 1968. Each time he was taken in, police officers interrogated him in the basement of the so-called General Security Directorate at Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid. Galante was repeatedly tortured in the same location where the Madrid regional government has its offices today. Tens of thousands who fought the dictatorship suffered similar fates in the last years of the regime of dictator Francisco Franco.

Manuel Blanco Chivite, a young business journalist, was arrested in July 1975 as he was handing out flyers. The officers at Puerta del Sol beat him on the back with clubs, put him in an ice-cold cement cell while he was wearing wet overalls and tortured him with electric shocks. Without any evidence, a military court sentenced Chivite and five others to death. One of Chivite's companions was executed only three months before the dictator's death on Nov. 20, while Chivite's sentence was reduced to 35 years in prison.

"I'm still considered a criminal," says Galante, now an independent business consultant, during a conversation in the office of the Association of Former Political Prisoners and Anti-Francoist Fighters. Like Chivite, he was only released in 1977, under a general amnesty for all political prisoners. The white-haired man slams his fist on the table and says: "But ironically our fascist torturers were decorated with awards and promoted by the very democratic governments for which we had fought."

'Symbolic Value'

But now immunity for Franco's helpers may be about to end. In Argentina, Judge María Servini de Cubría of the first chamber of the Federal Criminal Court in Buenos Aires issued international arrest warrants for four former Spanish police officers in mid-September. They include some of the tormentors of Galante and Chivite. At least two of them are still alive: Jesús Muñecas and Juan Antonio González Pacheco. There is "tremendous symbolic value" to Argentina's decision to demand the extradition of Franco's officers, 38 years after his death, says Chivite.

The Spanish attorney general's office refuses to have them arrested, and for Spanish citizens there is no threat of extradition. Nevertheless, a judge on the Spanish National Court wants to summon both former police officers to determine whether they are willing to testify voluntarily before Servini.

To this day, the Spaniards have not legally come to terms with the crimes committed by the Franco regime against the leftists on the losing side of the civil war. The cases now being looked into in Argentina occurred during the time period from the coup against the elected government of the Spanish Republic on July 17, 1936, to the first free parliamentary elections on June 15, 1977. The parties of the left, which had been brutally persecuted for four decades, agreed to an amnesty law at that time to help facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy.

But now a wave of lawsuits is heading toward Spain. In Buenos Aires, Judge Servini has begun to investigate cases such as the 1940 murder of the president of the autonomous government of Catalonia, Lluis Companys, and the killings of 47 other politicians. She intends to hear the testimony of another delegation from Spain in early December.

Hoping for 'Mega' Results

Meanwhile, the Argentine Foreign Ministry has ordered its embassies and consulates around the world to collect additional complaints by Franco victims and to facilitate video hearings through conference calls. Ana Messuti and Carlos Slepoy, two Argentine attorneys living in Madrid, have already drafted nearly 200 complaints. They believe that former ministers from the Franco regime will also be forced to stand trial soon, including the father-in-law of the current justice minister.

Messuti hopes that the "mega complaint," for forced disappearance, torture, child abduction and forced labor, will produce a "mega result."

"In this way, we will prove that these are crimes against humanity," she says. Messuti, who is well-published in legal philosophy, says the victims "want justice, not revenge." Most of the victims are over the age of 80, and material compensation is not their priority.

Since Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish investigative judge on the National Court, had former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested in London in 1998, Spanish courts have repeatedly engaged in universal jurisdiction. Garzón also investigated the Argentine military juntas, until then-President Nestor Kirchner lifted the so-called full-stop laws.

But when Garzón finally began conducting research into the whereabouts of the 114,000 Franco opponents who had disappeared and the at least 30,000 abducted children of political adversaries, he was charged with perversion of justice.

Returning the Favor

Because the path to legal recourse was blocked in Spain, two relatives of victims living in Argentina filed the first complaint there in 2010. Argentine courts had already successfully prosecuted human rights violations by their own dictatorship.

Garzón had accused the Franco regime of pursuing a "systematic plan to intimidate those Spaniards" who were loyal to the elected government of the Spanish Republic "by eliminating their representatives." In other words, these were crimes against humanity, which do not fall under the statute of limitations, nor are they covered by the amnesty law. However, this legal opinion is controversial, both in Spain and among international criminal law experts.

"It is absurd for countries like Argentina, with an extremely politicized judiciary, to now engage in universal jurisdiction," says Kai Ambos, a professor in the central German city of Göttingen. He believes "that constitutional states like Spain should come to terms with their own past."

Servini is taking over the argument for Garzón, who was dismissed in 2012. In May, she heard his testimony. Garzón is very pleased the Argentines have returned the favor.

Garzón is currently reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the Spanish government's handling of the disappeared. In his own country, the prominent judge is campaigning for the creation of a truth commission. Using Argentina, Chile and South Africa as models, it would officially determine what happened during the Franco era. A UN delegation that was in Spain recently urged the Spanish government to create such a truth commission and to help the surviving relatives search for the disappeared.

Galante, Chivite, and the attorney Messuti, are all convinced that one day even Spanish politicians will be forced to yield to international pressure and come to terms with the Franco past. They are not alone. According to recent polls, 69 percent of Spaniards ages 18 to 34 agree.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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1. Crazy
dtechba 11/07/2013
Countries legally reaching out to other countries for violations that did not occur in their borders is ridiculous. Where does this judicial overreach stop?
2. Spanish Civil War
sneeekysteve 11/08/2013
The spanish civil war was a brutal conflict that involved human rights abuses on both sides. Franco won the civil war but the Republican government also committed atrocities in the areas that they controlled. People who are familiar with the Spanish Civil War will agree that the war deeply damaged the psyche of the Spanish people. They have no desire to revisit it. If the people wanted to revisit the atrocities of the war their democratic government would have done it already. Most Spanish people refuse to discuss it. They made a collective national decision to forgive and forget. Now, other countries need to butt out and let the Spanish handle their own affairs.
3. Argentina sheds light on Franco regime
ocrata 11/09/2013
The Zapatero government, Judge Baltasar Garzón, and the Catalan Nationalists have revived the Spanish Civil War, almost putting it back on the streets.
4. Franco-era Crimes
srswain 11/11/2013
How is this helpful? It would seem to me that if Argentina wants to balance the books, so to speak, the might be wiser to start at home. The same thing goes for Chile, and Paraguay, where all kinds of crimes were committed either directly by the governments (of that day), or by agents acting on behalf of those governments. This move by this judge verges on the histrionic.
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