MADRID (AP) — Work resumed Monday to exhume the remains of four Spanish Civil War victims from a divisive mausoleum for late dictator Francisco Franco, Spanish heritage authorities said, a step that could open the door for many other similar requests in the future.
The four are believed to lie in crypts within the Valley of the Fallen, a controversial neoclassical mausoleum northwest of Madrid where more than 33,000 victims from both sides of the 1936-1939 war are buried alongside Franco’s remains.
Franco presented the grandiose complex as a symbol for national reconciliation, but victims’ relatives and activists have campaigned against it because forced labor was used in its construction and because it pays homage to the dictator who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.
Some even took the issue to courts, asking for the burial niches to be opened and remains to be handed over to victims’ families. They argued relatives were never informed about the burials and that Franco’s tomb in a prominent location by the basilica’s altar is an insult to the victims’ memory.
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In a first, a local judge in 2016 ordered the exhumation of the Lapena brothers, members of an unauthorized anarchist labor union who were executed without trial in 1936.
But the basilica’s abbot stopped the preliminary work for their exhumation for nearly two years by appealing the judge’s decision, until top Catholic Church authorities ordered him earlier this year to comply with the judge’s ruling.
Eduardo Ranz, the lawyer for Manuel and Antonio Lapena’s descendants, says that relatives of Pedro Gil and Juan Gonzalez, two soldiers who died fighting for Franco’s national army, have also requested their remains be removed.
“Spaniards will be witnesses of this historic day,” the lawyer said of the work that started in the crypts on Monday. But he added that the final goal is for the relatives to be reunited with the deceased. “That will be the end of the process, when the real reparation can finally be delivered.”
A team of architects needs to assess the state of the crypts and set the conditions under which the exhumation work can be performed, said a spokeswoman with Spain’s National Heritage administration who was not authorized to be identified in news reports.
She said it was uncertain how long the preliminary work could last.
A commission of experts looking into the future of the Valley of the Fallen recommended in 2011 that Franco’s remains be removed from the basilica, but the experts left the final decision in the hands of the government.
A separate investigation also found that water leaks and dampness in chapels and crypts holding the remains of 33,847 war victims had turned some of the niches into “piles of bones.”