Newspaper article International New York Times

Facing Justice in the Court of Memory

Newspaper article International New York Times

Facing Justice in the Court of Memory

Article excerpt

Exposure and shame are powerful deterrents to future abuses by tyrannical regimes.

In most countries, there is no statute of limitations for murder. Should there be one for torture? In Spain, neither charge can be brought against anyone who worked for the harsh, long-lasting regime of Francisco Franco, because of an amnesty law that eased the country's transition to democracy after the dictator's death in 1975.

But the case of Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco, a notorious torturer from the last years of Franco's military rule, is raising thorny questions. A former prisoner named Jose Maria Galante was startled last year to discover that Mr. Pacheco, alive and spry enough at 67 to be a long-distance runner, was living not far from him in Madrid.

Mr. Galante wants justice: He says Mr. Pacheco beat him on the genitals, waterboarded him and punched him while he was suspended from the ceiling in handcuffs. But the amnesty law means that Spanish courts will not try the case, so Mr. Galante and others have taken their cause to Argentina, where a sympathetic judge is trying to have Mr. Pacheco extradited.

While the chances of extradition are slim, anything that threatens consequences for those who were formerly complicit in a brutal tyranny lessens the chances for such a regime in the future. Franco controlled all of Spain for three and a half decades and a portion of the country for several years before that. Particularly in the early years of his dictatorship, during and after the Spanish Civil War, he ruled by deliberate terror. Officials boasted of mass rape as a weapon, for instance, and branded the breasts of female opponents with the yoke-and-arrows symbol of Franco's political movement. Although the government eventually became less bloodthirsty, the medieval garrote, an iron collar that an executioner tightened around the victim's neck, remained in use until a year before Franco's death.

A decade and a half ago, when many Spaniards wanted to show they were free of the heritage of dictatorship, Spain itself was in the lead in backing the principle of "universal jurisdiction" -- the idea that a court may prosecute foreign individuals for major human rights crimes that violate international law. But the political climate there is now far more cautious. A bill that restricts the courts' application of universal jurisdiction passed in Spain's Senate last month.

Other countries have been bold about dealing with their pasts: Chile and Argentina both passed amnesties for members of former military dictatorships but later reversed their stances. But regardless of what each country decides, the issues are complex. Do you prosecute only those who tortured, kidnapped or murdered? Or those who ordered them to do so? Or the higher authorities who looked the other way? …

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