MADRID (AFP) — Spanish conservatives reacted angrily Saturday to a judge's decision to order a probe into the disappearances of tens of thousands of people during the 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
Manuel Fraga, information and tourism minister under Franco from 1962 to 1969, said Judge Baltasar Garzon's decision to declare himself competent to order the inquiry was an "absurdity."
"It is absurd that a gentleman defines himself as being competent in an affair which is highly questionable where nobody has competence because there have been amnesty laws," said Fraga, who participated in Spain's ensuing transition to democracy and founded the conservative Popular Party (PP), in comments reported in the El Pais newspaper.
A PP senator, Fraga, 85, said that "politically it is a very serious error to revive the problems of the civil war, which was a tragedy for the two parties."
The party's parliamentary spokesperson Soraya Saenz de Santamaria also denounced Garzon's wish to "reopen themes that were resolved during the transition."
Another influential member, Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Madrid region, questioned the opening of an inquiry into an affair where all concerned were dead but said she respected the right of families to know where their relatives were buried.
The PP has always been opposed to the Socialist government's attempts to rehabilitate the Republican victims of the civil war and the Franco era, saying no purpose was served by reopening old wounds.
Garzon said Thursday he would investigate the disappearances of 114,266 people who disappeared between July 17, 1936 and December 1951.
The judge, who has investigated the crimes of dictators in Argentina and Chile, also called for the death certificates of Franco and 34 officials of his regime to rule out any criminal prosecutions against them.
And he asked the interior ministry to identify the top leaders of the far-right Falange organisation, which supported Franco, with a view to possibly filing charges against any still alive.
The public prosecutor's office is to appeal Garzon's decision, on the basis that any crimes committed are covered by a 1977 amnesty law, and that the judge is not "judicially competent" to investigate the disappearances.
Sources quoted by El Pais said that most judges in Garzon's court shared this opinion and were likely to allow the appeal when they come to vote on it next month.
However, Garzon said in his ruling that "any amnesty law that seeks to whitewash a crime against humanity ... is invalid in law."
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's left-leaning government has declined to comment on Garzon's action, except to say that it respected his decision "like that of any other judge."
Zapatero himself was also evasive Saturday, telling a press conference at Santiago de Compostela, "I believe that at this level there is no need to say what I think of francoism and its origins.
"I have said it often and it has been totally judged by history."
A maverick crusader for universal jurisprudence, Garzon obtained a decade ago the arrest of Chile's ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The 52-year-old, who has spent 20 years on the frontlines of the fight against the Basque separatist group ETA, is a controversial figure in Spain, where his critics charge he is more interested in making headlines than in concluding cases.
Garzon accused Pinochet of genocide, terrorism and torture, based on testimony from the Spanish families of people who had disappeared in Chile.
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