26th May 2024
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Sánchez visits Francoist mausoleum to learn about civil war exhumations

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited the imposing Francoist mausoleum outside Madrid on Thursday to learn about the exhumation of 160 Civil War victims, whose remains have been claimed by their families. ALSO READ: Initial forensic work begins to exhume bodies of 128 victims of Civil War.

The exhumations are the first involving bodies moved from other parts of Spain after the 1936-1939 war and reburied without their families’ consent in a sprawling monument built by dictator Franco’s regime, around 50 kilometres northwest of Madrid.

The vast hillside mausoleum was built in part by the forced labour of 20,000 political prisoners to commemorate the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. The huge complex was known as the Valley of the Fallen and had always been a revered shrine for Franco’s extreme right-wing followers. Last year it was re-baptised with its pre-war name, Cuelgamuros.

In 2019, the socialist (PSOE) government led by Sánchez ordered the removal of Franco’s remains under an amended historical memory law that banned exaltation of the dictator at the site. ALSO READ: Franco removed, but ‘Francoism still very present’ argue many.

Around 34,000 people from opposing sides of the Spanish Civil War are buried there. Many victims were initially buried in mass graves, which were dug up at Franco’s request. The bodies were moved to the mausoleum to fill the site with victims from both sides. There are still an estimated 100,000 victims buried in unmarked graves or roadside ditches across the country.

In 2022, Spain approved a new law on historical memory that nullified legal decisions made during the dictatorship. It makes the central government responsible for the recovery of the still-missing bodies of tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared by the regime. ALSO READ: Senate approves law that bans support for Franco and seeks to bring ‘justice’ to victims.

Relatives have been fighting for years to rebury their loved ones under their own names and near their families, instead of at a mausoleum hewn out of a mountainside by political prisoners during the post-war period.

Six forensic doctors and over 20 researchers specialising in history, archaeology and genetics are working to exhume the victims.

Sánchez, wearing white personal protective equipment, visited the forensic laboratory as well as the crypts and columbaria of the mausoleum, video and pictures of the visit released by the government showed.

He listened to the forensic team explain how they had searched for labelled boxes and carried out anthropological, dental and radiological studies of the remains extracted, along with DNA analyses.

The government’s footage showed wooden boxes damaged by the passage of time containing piles of human remains. Experts are now using new boxes where they are collecting the bones for better preservation.

Groups such as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory complained that Sánchez was able to visit while the victims’ relatives have not been granted access.

Spain transitioned to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, but the legacy of his four-decade fascist dictatorship still divides Spanish society.

Several regions ruled by the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and far-right Vox have restricted the national law that allows relatives to identify victims buried in about 2,400 unmarked mass graves around the country.

The government has challenged those restrictions before the Constitutional Court and said it could take them to international institutions.

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