GUADALAJARA, Spain (Reuters) - A 90-year-old Spanish woman wrapped in a fur coat and woollen scarf stood over a deep open grave and murmured “my father” to the unearthed skeleton lying at the bottom.
Ascension Mendieta’s trade unionist father Timoteo was shot in 1939 in the months after the Spanish Civil War and buried in a mass grave in the corner of Guadalajara’s town cemetery.
His grave was the first to be dug up on orders of an Argentine judge in a lawsuit seeking redress for crimes committed during the 1936-39 civil war and the four-decade dictatorship of General Francisco Franco that followed.
Mendieta’s efforts to give her father a proper burial could trigger a string of similar exhumations.
The case illustrates how Spain is struggling to come to terms with a past which is fading from living memory but leaves a mark on current affairs.
An amnesty law drawn up to smooth the path from dictatorship pardoned political crimes committed in the past. But the lack of accountability means hostilities were never laid to rest.
The antagonism between the two sides remained during the transition to democracy in the 1970s, resulting in deep divisions between left and right in a two-party system that dominated Spanish politics for decades.
Spaniards turned in droves to new parties in a December national election, breaking the status quo and ushering in a new political era that has so far left Spain without a government but is forcing different factions to seek consensus.
Historians estimate as many as 500,000 combatants and civilians were killed on the Republican and Nationalist sides in the war. After it ended, tens of thousands of Franco’s enemies were killed or imprisoned in a campaign to wipe out dissent.
Mendieta, who was 13 when her father died, travelled to Buenos Aires in 2013 to give evidence about his death. She was one of hundreds who have used international human rights law to turn to an Argentine court to seek justice for crimes carried out during and after the civil war.
“It has always troubled me how he may have fallen into the grave - face up, face down,” she told Reuters. “Now we can give him a decent burial like everyone deserves. Not just dumped in there like a dog.”
Spain, in common with many Latin American countries in their move from dictatorship to democracy, passed the amnesty law in 1977 to draw a curtain over the violence.
The United Nations and human rights organisations have urged Spain to revoke the law. But Spain has stood by the legal embodiment of the so-called “Pact of Forgetting”, which many see as a necessary price to have paid for the transition to succeed.
A campaign of retribution would only have left the country dangerously polarised, that point of view holds.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said it was unlikely this case would have any impact on the amnesty law.
A Guadalajara town hall spokesman said further exhumations could only be carried out by court order. The Spanish regional court that approved the opening of the grave on the orders of the Argentine judge was not able to comment on the matter.
Argentine Judge Maria Servini is looking to override the amnesty law to seek justice for Franco-era crimes ranging from torture to extra-judicial killings in a lawsuit opened in 2010.
Spain itself used the international law in 2005 to prosecute Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo in a Spanish court for crimes against humanity during that country’s “Dirty War”.
Spain’s most famous human rights judge, Baltasar Garzon, played a leading role in the trial, which led to Argentina’s 1987 amnesty laws being overturned. Garzon opened an inquiry into Franco-era crimes in 2008 but later dropped the case - an example of the issue’s political sensitivity.
The past impinges on politics at many levels - Madrid’s leftist mayor and the right-wing head of the regional government are currently in a dispute over the removal of monuments and plaques linked to Franco’s Spain.
Spain’s former Socialist government, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, passed a law in 2007 aimed at recognising victims of both sides of the war, including financing the exhumation and reburial of victims of political violence.
However, although the law formally condemned the Franco regime, it fell short of undoing the amnesty or setting up a truth commission, such as happened in South Africa and Chile.
The centre-right People’s Party (PP), which defeated the Socialists in the 2011 election but failed to secure enough votes to form a government in the December poll, did not repeal the law but stopped state funding of exhumations.
At the request of Judge Servini, a Guadalajara court authorised the exhumation of the grave, which contained 22 bodies of people believed to have been killed by Franco’s forces in the months after the end of the civil war.
Archaeologists started to dig on Jan. 19, working from a town hall ledger which meticulously noted in a copperplate hand the names, ages and position of those buried in the town cemetery.
Those working on the project believe about 200 bodies in total are buried in pits in this corner of the cemetery, which was sealed off from the rest of the graveyard by a wall until after Franco’s death in 1975.
Timoteo’s body is believed to be the 19th or 20th of the vertically stacked bodies in that grave. As archaeologists worked on digging them up, dozens of families came to the site to find out about relatives they believe to be buried there.
More than 80 families registered with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH), a non-profit group that works to recognise the victims. ARMH has documented 114,226 cases of men and women buried in mass graves around Spain.
Pablo Rodriguez, a 63-year-old retiree, left his contact details at a tent set up by the association near the dig.
“I came here as a small boy with my mother to leave flowers on All Saints’ Day,” he said. “She told me: ‘Your grandparents are buried here’. There used to be a wall and you had to ask for the key to get in.”
Rodriguez carried with him a plastic bag containing old documents and letters, including a 1940 death warrant for his grandfather for joining a rebellion issued by a military court.
“I’d like them to be buried beside their daughter,” he said, gesturing to his mother’s grave 20 metres away in the cemetery’s main section.
Archaeologist Rene Pacheco took a break from excavating the grave. Bones were carefully placed in buckets, hauled up to the surface then put in cardboard boxes.
“This grave has many peculiar features. We’ve never found so deep a grave in a cemetery,” he said. “The fact they dug so deep shows they expected a lot of bodies to be buried.”
Samples from the bones and teeth of the skeletons will be sent to Argentina along with saliva swabs from relatives, so identities can be established. Argentina will carry out the tests for free, a service that has not been offered by Spain, Pacheco said.
“We’d like this part to be processed as quickly as possible because we have a 90-year-old woman waiting,” he said.
Editing by Julien Toyer and Angus MacSwan