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Spain cracks open dictatorial past

The parliament looks set to pass a law that could clear the names of those convicted by Franco courts.

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Vicente Muñiz was 4 years old when his parents were taken away. As Members of the Marxist Worker's Unification Party (POUM), they were arrested in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War for being political enemies of Francisco Franco's victorious Nationalists. In 1941, they were found guilty, executed for their "crimes," and buried in a mass grave.

Once the dictatorship ended in 1975, Muñiz tried to clear his parents' names. He convinced the Supreme Court to review their case, but the court ruled it could do nothing, because Muñiz's parents were fairly convicted by the law then in effect.

Now, Muñiz may get another chance. Last week, the ruling Socialist Party cleared the way for passage of their proposed Law of Historical Memory by agreeing to include a provision that would declare the political trials of the 36-year Franco dictatorship "illegitimate."

The decision marks the first time a Spanish government has publicly challenged the legality of the dictatorship. While other European countries began relatively soon after the end of World War II to prosecute citizens who had carried out atrocities and make amends to their victims, Spain has resisted investigations and reparations. Instead, when Franco died in 1975, parties across the political spectrum colluded in a "pact of silence" designed to ensure a peaceful transition to representative government. While Spain quickly became a constitutional democracy, it took almost 30 years before citizens dared speak of the old regime's abuses.

"The pact of silence was necessary for the Transition," says José María Pedreña, of the Forum for Memory, an organization dedicated to identifying Republican supporters killed or missing during the war and ensuing dictatorship. "But it meant that our democracy was flawed from the beginning, because it rested on the impunity of Franco's regime."

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