Spanish left in parliamentary push to investigate Franco-era crimes

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MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's leftist ruling coalition on Wednesday launched an assault on long-standing legal barriers to investigating crimes committed during General Francisco Franco's 1939-1975 dictatorship and the preceding civil war.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and its partner Unidas Podemos proposed amendments to the so-called Democratic Memory bill making its way through parliament that posit that, under international law, amnesties do not apply to crimes against humanity.

In an effort to ease the transition to democracy after Franco's death, Spain in 1977 passed an amnesty law pardoning political crimes committed during the conflict and the dictatorship in an accord known as the "Pact of Forgetting".

That has prevented Spain from addressing its dark past, unlike countries such as South Africa that confronted the horrors of apartheid through truth and reconciliation hearings.

If passed with the amendements the Democratic Memory bill designed to tackle Franco's legacy and finance the exhumation of thousands of victims buried in mass graves would pave the way for prosecutors to investigate war crimes, genocide and torture.

Catalonia's leftist separatist party ERC, whose support the government needs to pass legislation including next year's budget, due for its final vote next month, had been pushing to expand the democratic memory bill's scope, and the proposed amendements address many of their demands.

Despite the Pact of Forgetting, Spain pioneered the use of the concept that crimes such as genocide and torture are so serious they can be prosecuted across borders, eventually encouraging other countries such as Argentina or Chile to investigate their own crimes.

Former High Court judge Baltasar Garzon tried to investigate in 2008 more than 110,000 Franco-era disappearances, but his efforts ended with him on the bench accused of exceeding his mandate as a investigative judge. He was acquitted in 2018.

More than half a million people died during the 1936-39 civil war and an estimated 150,000 were killed later in repression by Franco's government, historians estimate.

For 91-year-old Agustina Recio, who on Wednesday witnessed exhumations from a mass grave in Toledo where her father had likely been buried after being shot by Franco's forces in 1936, just finding his remains appeared to trump any reprisals.

Her four siblings had died without being able to give their father a proper burial.

"Now at least I'm going to die with the joy that my father will be with my mother and my daughter, who is also dead," she said.

(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Belen Carreno and Nathan Allen and Juan Medina, editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)

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