Victims of Franco regime greet Argentine probe

Sep 23, 2013, 1:33 PM EDT
Maria Rumin, 55 years old, center, Jesus Rodriguez Barrios, 59 years old, left, and Felisa Echegoyen, 65 years old, right, pose for a portrait in Madrid, Spain, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013.
(AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

MADRID (AP) — Three people who claim they were tortured during Spain's Franco dictatorship said Monday they hope arrest warrants issued last week by Argentina will help bring some of the perpetrators to justice and finally open up a public debate on one of the country's darkest periods.

The three told reporters of routine arrests, beatings and torture during the near-40-year dictatorship that have never been investigated in Spain. One victim, Maria Rumin, 55, said she wanted "everyone to know who these people are and what they did."

Gen. Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. He took over the country after leading a rebellion against a democratically elected government, thus starting the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The fact that Argentina got involved in this case appears to be another indication of how Spanish governments since Franco's death have adhered to a tacit agreement not to use this dark chapter in the country's history for political purposes. Some believe that has forced Spain to steer clear of measures that could have helped heal old wounds.

Rumin said she was 17 when she was arrested at a demonstration in 1975 and held for three days at a feared security center in central Madrid, which is now the headquarters the Madrid regional government.

"They hit me and there was also psychological torture," said Rumin, adding that at first she was not allowed to see anyone or given medication for an ailment . She said the "social stigma" after being released lasted long after.

Their testimony forms part of an investigation of possible crimes against humanity by the dictatorship being conducted by Argentine Judge Maria Servini de Cubria , who last week issued arrest and extradition orders for four former Spanish police officers.

One of the alleged police torturers named by Servini de Cubria is former police inspector Jose Antonio Gonzalez Pacheco, who the victims said was known for his cruelty and nicknamed "Billy the Kid" because he used to spin a gun on his finger like a cowboy during the interrogation sessions.

"You could ask anyone of our age, Billy the Kid was extremely famous because he tortured half of Madrid," said victim Jesus Rodriquez.

Servini is believed to be living in the Madrid area, but efforts by The Associated Press to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

It remains to be seen whether will Spain act on the petitions.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardon said last week the country's prosecutors and National Court will study the requests accordingly. However, a bid by the judge to question victims by video conference was blocked earlier this year by the Spanish government.

The Argentine probe comes after a much publicized investigation into Franco crimes begun by famed former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon was halted when the magistrate was barred from the bench in 2012 for a overstepping his jurisdiction in a separate case.

His expulsion raised a storm in Spain and abroad as Garzon was seen by many as a champion of human rights, particularly after he indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

But Garzon's probe faced much opposition as it was seen to go against an amnesty that was passed two years after Franco's death and he was accused of opening old wounds.

The victims' news conference Monday coincided with the arrival in Spain on Monday of a team from the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Over the next week, the U.N. experts will meet with authorities, relatives of disappeared persons, representatives of civil organizations, lawyers and academics. They are to hold a news conference on Sept. 30 and a final report on the visit will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014.

Maria Garzon, daughter of the once famous judge and who heads a group that wants Spain to set up a Commission for Truth to investigate the alleged Franco atrocities, welcomed the visit.

"We are talking about between 130,000 and 150,000 disappeared, 30,000 stolen children, approximately 2,269 common graves — only 390 of them open — and this is only what we have details about," she said.

"It is obvious Spain has not done its homework at all," she added.

For many, the Argentine probe could be one of the last chances to end impunity.

"The vast majority of the torturers are dead, or close to dying," said Rodriguez. "The majority of victims of Franco were never able to speak out; many of them are dead and many are too scared to speak."