The remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco are set to be moved from a vast mausoleum to a low-key grave, 44 years after his death.
Thursday’s long-awaited relocation will fulfil a key pledge of the socialist government, which said Spain should not continue to glorify a fascist who ruled the country for nearly four decades.
His family unsuccessfully challenged the reburial in the courts.
The Franco era continues to haunt Spain, now a robust democracy.
The exhumation ceremony begins at 10:30 local time (08:30 GMT) on Thursday, and the remains will be moved by helicopter.
Only a few people are being allowed to witness the event. They include the justice minister, an expert in forensics, a priest and 22 descendants of Francisco Franco. Media are excluded.
The low-key ceremony will require a crane to lift a concrete slab weighing 1,500kg that covers the coffin. In total, the exhumation and re-burial will cost about €63,000 (£54,000; $70,000), Spanish media report.
Why is Franco being moved?
Franco is currently interred at the Valley of the Fallen, a basilica carved into a mountain about 50km (30 miles) from Madrid.
He is being moved to the El Pardo state cemetery in Madrid, where is wife is buried. The family are not allowed to drape the national flag on his coffin.
The Valley of the Fallen houses more than 30,000 dead from both sides of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, in which Franco’s Nationalist forces defeated the Republican government.
It was partly built by political prisoners, whom Franco’s regime subjected to forced labour.
The site has been a focal point for Franco supporters and a shrine for the far-right.
The government of PM Pedro Sánchez wants the site to become “a place of commemoration, remembrance and homage to the victims of the war”. It sees the presence of Franco’s remains there as an affront to a mature democracy.
Do Spanish people support this?
The burial place of Franco has been the subject of fierce debate for decades and Spaniards remain divided over whether his remains should be moved, newspaper polls suggest.
An El Mundo poll this month said 43% supported the move, with 32.5% against and the rest undecided.
Many descendants of Franco’s victims are happy that action is finally being taken.
“The idea that people who were killed by Franco’s troops are buried together with Franco, it’s very absurd, and they’re still glorifying him as if he were the saviour of Spain,” Silvia Navarro, whose great uncle died in 1936, told the BBC.
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But critics have accused the government of playing politics ahead of an election next month.
What’s the Franco family’s view?
Franco’s grandson, Francisco Franco y Martinez-Bordiu, said he was furious with the government.
“I feel a great deal of rage because [the government] has used something as cowardly as digging up a corpse as propaganda, and political publicity to win a handful of votes before an election,” he told Reuters news agency.
Last month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Franco’s family against the exhumation. It also dismissed a proposal for an alternative site.
The family, who would rather he were not moved at all, wanted him to lie in a family crypt in the Almudena Cathedral – in the centre of the capital.
But the government argued that the former dictator should not be placed anywhere where he could be glorified. It also said there were potential security issues with the cathedral site.
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Various other politicians are interred at the El Pardo cemetery where his remains will be reburied.
How has Spain dealt with the Franco era?
Unlike in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, defeated in World War Two, Spain’s transition to democracy in 1975 was more gradual.
Though democracy is well established now, many believe the country has never faced up to its fascist past. There was an unwritten “pact of forgetting” during the transition.
An Amnesty Law adopted in 1977 prevents any criminal investigation into the Franco years.
Statues of Franco were removed and many streets were renamed, to erase obvious signs of the fascist past.
A Historical Memory Law, passed in 2007 by the socialist government at the time, recognised the war victims on both sides and provided some help for surviving victims of Franco’s dictatorship and their families.
But the work to locate and rebury thousands of civil war dead has been slow and controversial.
More than 100,000 victims of the conflict, and the ferocious repression carried out afterwards, are still missing.
Francisco Franco, 1892-1975
- Born in Galicia to a military family, became the youngest general in Spain in the 1920s
- Following the election of the leftist Popular Front in 1936, Franco and other generals launched a revolt, which sparked a three-year civil war
- Helped by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Franco won the war in 1939 and established a dictatorship, proclaiming himself head of state – “El Caudillo”
- Franco kept a tight grip on power until his death in 1975, after which Spain made a transition to democracy
Franco exhumation: Spanish dictator’s remains set to be moved