Spanish court orders exhumation of bodies from Franco's era, reopens debate

A court decision to order the first-ever exhumation of bodies at Spain's Valley of the Fallen mausoleum where dictator Francisco Franco is buried is re-igniting a debate over whether the memorial site that holds thousands of civil war victims should be disturbed.

In a ruling released Monday, a judge in the west-central town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near where the mausoleum is located, gave permission to the family to search for the bodies of Manuel and Ramiro Lapena Altabas "to give them proper burial."

The brothers, one a veterinarian and the other a blacksmith, were both founding members of the anarchist union CNT. They were executed without trial by Franco's forces in the early days of the 1936-39 civil war, and buried in a common grave in their native northeastern town of Calatayud.

In 1959, the Franco government ordered the remains of thousands of war victims to be moved to the Valley of the Fallen, which he had built as a monument to the dead of the war and where he himself was later buried.

The site holds the bones of nearly 34,000 people from both sides, and many political prisoners were used to build it. It features a 150-meter (490-foot) stone cross visible far from its location about 45 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Madrid.

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It is Spanish right-wingers' most potent and beloved symbol of the Franco era, and a place they insist that shouldn't be disturbed. Others detest it and see it as living reminder of Spain's dictatorial past.

The Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory welcomed the news Tuesday and said it would help open the door for other relatives of the war's disappeared to seek justice.

"The decision will most likely lead to more demands, but the problem is that the list of people buried at the Valley is not public," said Emilio Silva, whose association has been working since the late 1990s to help Spaniards locate the graves of an estimated 115,000 people still missing.

But in a statement, the Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen said it wasn't proven that the bodies of the brothers were there and warned of legal action should the remains of others buried there be disturbed.

Spain's National Heritage body, which manages the site, said Tuesday it "will scrupulously respect" the court decision once notified.

In 2007, Spain's then Socialist government passed the Historic Memory Law, marking the first time a government in Spain condemned the nearly 40-year Franco regime. It also called on authorities to help to people locate the remains of missing relatives. The United Nations has made similar calls.

In 2011, a government commission said the site should be officially designated as a memorial for victims of both sides and that Franco's remains should be removed and buried elsewhere.

In reality, very little has changed.

The center-right Popular Party, which has been in power for the past four years, opposed the 2007 law.

Eduardo Ranz, the lawyer who acted for a descendant of the brothers, said it was now up to the heritage body to give permission for work on the exhumation to start, but that it was early days.

"The decision closes wounds. It doesn't reopen them," he said.

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