Baltasar Garzon

Judge Garzon is famous for crimes-against-humanity ca

A Spanish judge has launched a criminal investigation into the fate of tens of thousands of people who vanished during the civil war and Franco dictatorship.

Judge Baltasar Garzon – Spain's top investigating judge – has also ordered several mass graves to be opened.

One is believed to contain the remains of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by fascist forces at the start of the war in the 1930s.

Correspondents say the historic ruling will be controversial in Spain.

They say there has been a tacit agreement among political parties not to delve too deeply into the civil war and Franco era.

In his 68-page ruling, Judge Garzon says that Francoists carried out "illegal permanent detentions" which he says falls within the definition of crimes against humanity.

Controversial step

He refers to 114,000 people who disappeared during a 15-year period after the outbreak of war in 1936.

The BBC's Steve Kingstone, in Madrid, says that never before has Spain's civil war been investigated by a judge.

And in using the phrase "crime against humanity" Judge Garzon is taking a highly controversial step.

The conflict was triggered by the military uprising of General Francisco Franco, whose supporters are said to have systematically eliminated left-wing opponents, even after the war was won in 1939.

Fascist volunteers march though Burgos, northern Spain, in 1936

Survivors of the civil war Falange movement may face prosecution

Judge Garzon's document names Gen Franco and 34 of his senior aides as the instigators of the alleged crimes.

He even asks that their death certificates be produced, to prove that they can no longer face prosecution.

The judge has also asked Spain's Interior Ministry to provide names of senior members of the fascist Falange Party, which supported Franco, with a view to possible prosecutions.

He has ordered the opening of 19 mass graves, believed to contain victims of the Franco regime. The remains of the poet Lorca, who was murdered at the start of the war, are thought to be buried in the southern province of Granada.

Judge Garzon is famous for bringing crimes-against-humanity cases against figures such as former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Last year he was asked by the families of people who vanished during the Spanish civil war or during Franco's dictatorship, that the remains of their loved ones be found and the circumstances of their deaths clarified.

An estimated 500,000 people died in the civil war.

Source BBC