Spanish court to rule on divisive Franco exhumation

Madrid (AFP) –

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Spain's Supreme Court on Tuesday will announce its ruling on the government's plans to remove the remains of Francisco Franco from a state mausoleum, after months of bitter wrangling with the late dictator's descendants who fiercely oppose a move.

The issue has divided opinion in Spain, which is still conflicted over the dictatorship that ended with Franco's death in 1975.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialist government has made transferring Franco's remains a priority, arguing the country could not "continue to glorify" the dictator, who is interred at a huge hillside mausoleum belonging to the Catholic Church in the Valley of the Fallen, west of Madrid.

The imposing basilica has drawn the attention of both tourists and right-wing sympathisers who have rallied at the site.

Officials had planned to move Franco's remains to a more discreet family tomb on June 10.

But six days beforehand, the court suspended the exhumation pending the outcome of an appeal by Franco's heirs.

Six magistrates from the country's top court are due to meet at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) on Tuesday to deliver their ruling.

Regardless of the ruling, the court still has to consider three other appeals, although a court spokesman said it was "foreseeable" that the magistrates would rule along the same lines.

"We hope that justice will be done," said Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo on Monday, criticising the "indignity of always having the dictator in a glorified place."

Franco ruled with an iron fist following the end of the 1936-39 civil war, triggered by his rebellion against an elected Republican government.

The mausoleum was built by Franco's regime between 1940 and 1959 -- in part by the forced labour of some 20,000 political prisoners -- and the monument holds the remains of 37,000 dead from both sides of the civil war.

A 150-metre (500-feet) cross towers over the site.

- 'Battle to the end' -

Descendants of the former ruler have expressed determination to ensure Franco stays at the Valley of the Fallen.

"We will continue our legal battle to the end so Franco stays there," said Juan Chicharro Ortega, spokesman for the Francisco Franco Foundation, which defends the memory of the dictator and has filed one of the remaining three appeals.

The government planned to move Franco's remains from the Valley of the Fallen to be reburied next to his wife in the family tomb at Mingorrubio El Pardo, a state cemetery where various political figures are buried

If the exhumation could not be stopped, Franco's heirs had wanted his remains to be moved to the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid, where his daughter is buried.

But the government feared the central location could become a pilgrimage site for Franco supporters and successfully lobbied the Vatican to reject this option.

Many on the left are repulsed by the situation at the Valley of the Fallen, comparing it to a monument glorifying Hitler.

The court ruling comes as Spain is gripped with political crisis and is preparing for its fourth election in as many years on November 10.