Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Judge pulls out of Franco probes

A skull uncovered in a mass grave in Malaga, Spain, September 2008
Remains of some 4,500 people have been found in this grave at Malaga

A top Spanish judge has pulled out of investigations into the fate of more than 100,000 people who vanished during the civil war and Franco dictatorship.

Justice officials say Baltasar Garzon complied with demands that inquiries should be handled by courts in the regions where crimes were committed.

Judge Garzon announced last month that the opening of mass graves from Spain's 1936-39 civil war could start.

But Spain's top criminal court later suspended the exhumations.

It imposed the halt to allow it to rule on whether Judge Garzon had the competence to launch the inquiry.

Judge Garzon's supporters condemned the ruling as "brutally inhumane".

But others said the judge's intervention violated the 1977 Amnesty Law, that pardoned politically-motivated crimes by General Franco's friends and foes alike.

'Delicate transition'

In October, Judge Garzon named Gen Francisco Franco and more than 30 members of his regime as instigators of alleged crimes against humanity.

Baltasar Garzon
Baltasar Garzon is seen by many in Spain as a polarising figure

In a 68-page edict, the judge referred to 114,000 alleged victims who "disappeared" over a 15-year period, following Gen Franco's military uprising against the elected Second Republic government in July 1936.

Judge Garzon also said that mass exhumations could start - including, controversially, at the grave where poet Federico Garcia Lorca is thought to be buried.

But earlier this month, Spain's top criminal court, the National Audience, ruled that "the activities related to the exhumation of bodies must be suspended while this court resolves questions raised by the public prosecutor regarding the competence of the judge to make this move".

Its ruling followed an appeal from the public prosecutor, who had said Franco-era crimes could not be examined because of the Amnesty Law.

By guaranteeing that the past would not be raked over, the law underpinned Spain's delicate transition from dictatorship to democracy, the BBC's Steve Kingston in Madrid says.

However, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has recently asked Spain to abolish the law, saying it contradicted international treaties.

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Country profile: Spain
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