Spanish 'memory law' reopens deep wounds of Franco era

For the first time since the civil war 70 years ago, Spain has finally made an effort to recognise its authoritarian past, in a bill that condemns Francisco Franco's dictatorship and honours his victims.

After months of haggling, and fierce opposition from the conservative Popular Party (PP), the ruling Socialists will present their Law of Historic Memory to parliament today, 32 years after the death of the dictator.

The difficulty in producing a draft acceptable to most MPs reveals how deeply Franco's legacy still divides Spain. The issue is set to enflame an already heated political atmosphere ahead of general elections next March.

"We have reached an important moment," said the Socialist parliamentary spokesman Diego Lopez Garrido. "The law will provide definitive reparation and recognition for those who suffered in the civil war."

The Law of Historic Memory condemns Franco's actions during the civil war between 1936 and 1939, and his 40-year dictatorship. MPs from most parties had "reached a high degree of rapprochement on the main points of the law", said Mr Garrido, although some details remained to be worked out.

The bill will declare arbitrary sentences handed down by military courts set up by Franco "unjust" and "illegitimate", said Mr Garrido. This will enable victims or their families to seek redress through the courts for executions, exile and persecution never before challenged. It will also offer token compensation for families of those killed, wounded or expropriated.

Supporters of the law say it brings symbolic justice for the first time to those vanquished by Franco. A radio poll this week reckoned up to half of the population approved of the law, a flagship proposal by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero when he became Prime Minister in 2004.

But the PP said the initiative was "a huge mistake" that rakes up memories of the worst time in Spain's recent history. "Zapatero has brought division and confrontation, and reopened the wounds of the past," said Angel Acebes, the PP's general secretary. The PP has never dissociated itself from Franco, and many members covertly admire him.

The ruling Socialists won support from MPs in small parties from Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Aragon, and from the communist United Left on the main points of the bill. But the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left says it won't back the law because it is too soft and lets old Francoists off the hook. The law would subject victims to a "calvary of legal proceedings", the party warned.

The law was stalled for months, and might have died had the government not made concessions to win majority support at the last moment. Another week, and it would have run out of parliamentary time.

Emilio Silva, spokesman for the movement that seeks to recover the remains of those shot and thrown into unmarked mass graves, said he was shocked that no census was planned of tens of thousands killed by Franco's troops and buried anonymously. Mr Silva's grandfather was among those summarily executed. "I'm happy the law is going ahead, the first recognition of past injustice, but it's very lukewarm and it's unclear how it will be implemented," he said.