Minister fights Spanish military secrecy

Spain's Defence Minister, Carme Chacon, continues to cut a swathe through Spain's stiff-necked military establishment, with a pioneering proposal made public yesterday to declassify secret documents held in military archives.

In a nation that endured three years of civil war and 40 years of dictatorship, this is a revolutionary move comparable to Germany opening up the Stasi secret police files. Ms Chacon's motive is similar: to provide public access for historians and those who suffered for decades because of the arbitrary decisions taken by a military regime against which no appeal was possible.

"We will take measures to declassify Defence Ministry documents that will permit free access to documentation inaccessible up to now, and which has a high scientific and also, of course, sentimental value for many people," Ms Chacon said.

Spain never declassifies official documents, even decades after the events to which they refer. There is nothing comparable to Britain's 30-year rule and there is no freedom of information act entitling interested parties to obtain details of past military or intelligence operations.

Millions of documents which record the fate of generations of Spaniards during the 1936-39 conflict and General Franco's subsequent dictatorship, remain hermetically sealed unless opened individually by judicial order.

Ms Chacon's initiative forms part of the Socialist government's plan to restore justice to Franco's victims, in accordance with a historic memory law passed last year. What is the point, Ms Chacon asks, of digging up the bones of those thrown anonymously into mass graves after being shot at dawn, when all the documentation is locked up in army files?

The problem is to find a way round the Official Secrets Law of 1968, passed at the height of Franco's dictatorship to prevent thousands of victims or their families from questioning the dubious legality of their jail terms or execution orders. The law was modified in 1978 – after Franco's death, but before Spain's democratic constitution was approved – making it impossible for anybody other than the armed forces or cabinet ministers to authorise the opening of individual secret files. "Many of these documents are in the defence archives, but we are not the only ones competent to decide what should be declassified or not," Ms Chacon told El Pais. "We know the solution will be complex and not particularly rapid. But we are clear that we want to open up a new phase, and achieve declassification for scientific, historical and emotional reasons."

Partial access to defence files was achieved for the first time in 1998, but a military archives regulation explicitly excluded classified documents, "which would be governed by specific legislation". All efforts to abolish the Official Secrets Law have failed so far, apparently out of fear of what the press may do with the findings. Historians and others seeking to consult specific files have to rely on the goodwill of archivists.

The government reportedly seeks to apply a formula that already applies to non-secret documents that might affect individual privacy. This ruling grants access only to those who have the consent of those directly affected, or 25 years after the death of the person affected, or 50 years after the date of the document.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government is uneasy with Ms Chacon's bold plan, as it was when she unilaterally replaced all her chiefs of staff within weeks of taking office.

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