During the 60s and 70s, General Franco’s fascist dictatorship in Spain responded to an increasing movement for basic human rights with horrific violence. Thousands were jailed, tortured, or assassinated, mostly for doing nothing more than being a member of an “illegal” organisation, such as the clandestine trade unions and political parties, handing out political leaflets, or going on a demonstration,all types of which were illegal.
In other parts of the world, such as Argentina or Chile, the perpetrators of similar crimes have been brought to justice – but not in Spain. Reel News is in Spain for two weeks to work with La Comuna, an organisation of ex-political prisoners fighting for justice and reparations.
On Monday, we met Manuel Blanco Chivite and Pablo Mayoral, activists in the 70s in the Antifascist and Patriotic Revolutionary Front (FRAP).
Manuel explained that the early 70s was a period of economic and political crisis for Franco’s regime. The oil crisis of 1973 had created huge problems for the Spanish economy; Franco’s health was deteriorating rapidly; and the social movements in Spain in the colleges, workplaces and neighbourhoods were growing and becoming increasingly confident. Young people were leading the movement; as they hadn’t lived through the horrific violence and fear of the post civil war era when the fascist regime was consolidating its power, they were able to do things that their parents couldn’t. As worsening living conditions added to the complete lack of rights under fascism, more and more struggles developed throughout Spanish society.
The regime responded predictably; with a fresh wave of violence. Pablo told us that although the demonstrations called in this period were completely peaceful, police would attack them viciously with live ammunition. As deaths on demonstrations became commonplace, something had to be done.
People started fighting back, defending themselves by any means necessary. FRAP was one of many groups on the radical left that started to focus and give expression to this impulse, and grew quickly – particularly in the colleges and neighbourhoods. Pablo said the growth in workplaces wasn’t so large, but was still significant.
As surveillance of groups like FRAP increased, Pablo was forced to leave his job in 1975 and then spent 4 months living clandestinely. He described what a difficult time it was – constantly on the move, often not even having somewhere to sleep for the night. In Madrid’s metro their would be two armed police in every station all day every day, stopping virtually every young person, searching their bags and checking their documents.
“States of exception” would be declared, a form of martial law where the few rights there were under fascism would be suspended in entire areas, for periods that could last for months. The oppression was particularly fierce in the Basque Country. In Blbao in July 1975 for example, there were so many arrests that hundreds of people were detained in the main square because the police stations and jails were completely full up.
The same month, a confrontation in Madrid with armed police resulted in the death of a police officer. Pablo and Manuel were arrested on suspicion of being responsible and were taken, as normal, to the detention centre (Dirección General de Seguridad). But events from here were anything but normal.
Usually when people arrived at the DGS, they would be signed in and processed – name, date and time of arrest and so on. Pablo and Manuel were taken straight to the interrogation cells, so there was no record of them being there. As Manuel pointed out, they could have killed them there and then and no-one would have known. They were then kept there for 10 or 11 days, even though the legal limit was 72 hours.
The interrogation cells were in the basement of the building, below ground level with no natural light. They were subjected to constant beatings and torture with virtually no let up. Pablo said that you just had to mentally draw a curtain over your face to try and distance yourself from the horror. Manuel explained how young police officers were being taught how to torture by the older ones, using them as the subjects. On the last day, they forced them to sign a confession. Pablo said they didn’t even have any idea what it said.
In prison they were held completely incommunicado for 40 days – they didn’t even get access to a lawyer for 25 days. Pablo explained that he was kept in a cell no bigger than 4m x 3m, with nothing – no soap, no chance of a shower, no clothes to change into.
They were taken from the prison at the end of August and greeted with the news that they were going to be tried in a military tribunal with three other comrades arrested for the same offence. It was a sick travesty of justice. Not a single piece of evidence was produced for any of the 5; no witnesses, no ballistic evidence, not even the gun that had supposedly been used to kill the police officer. They were all found guilty in barely 3 hours. The next morning came the sentences. Manuel was sentenced to death along with two others. Pablo was given 30 years.
There were 6 other prisoners condemned to death in other areas of Spain at the same time – 3 more from FRAP, 3 from ETA – so 11 of them were to face the firing squad just 15 days later. Hours before the sentences were carried out, Manuel was told that his sentence was to be commuted, along with 5 others. Manuel still doesn’t know why, but as he said, the important thing was that 5 executions were still carried out, without a shred of evidence. Police queued up to volunteer to kill the 5 – José Humberto Baena, Ramón Garcia Sanz and José Luis Sánchez Bravo from FRAP, Juan Paredes (Txiki) and Angél Otaegi from ETA. Franco was to die just 2 months later, and Manuel explained that the executions were a desperate attempt by a weakening regime to stop increasingly powerful social movements bringing about the end of the fascist dictatorship.
There was international revulsion at the killings. Huge demonstrations took place everywhere, including London. In France there were strikes and riots. In Portugal and Italy, the Spanish embassies were burnt down. Virtually every Spanish ambassador was thrown out and sent back to Madrid.
Manuel and Pablo were released from prison in 1977, when the law of amnesty was passed following the first democratic elections in Spain for over 40 years. The battle to get amnesty for all political prisoners had been hard fought, with police continuing to kill people on demonstrations over the issue. Unfortunately when the law was finally passed, it also granted complete impunity for all the crimes of the Franco regime from 1931 onwards.
Today, Manuel and Pablo are active in La Comuna, the organisation of ex-political prisoners fighting for justice and reparations for the crimes of the Franco regime, and the overturning of a law of amnesty that, as even the United Nations has declared, violates international human rights law. Pablo pointed out that international solidarity over the executions in 1975 had a profound effect on the regime, and how international solidarity now will again be crucial in winning the battle for justice.
Tomorrow: more about La Comuna’s battle for justice and how we in other countries can help.
We will need to make trips to other parts of Spain in order to help in this crucial struggle for justice – but we need money to do it. Obviously there is no funding for a project of this sort in Spain, and with the brutal austerity measures, our fellow film makers in Madrid have no money either. If you can help, please click the donate button below.