Tony Connelly, RTÉ News Europe Correspondent, reports on a controversial new law due to be accepted by the Spanish parliament aimed at providing redress to victims of the civil war and its aftermath

In 1936, 44-year-old Emilio Silva was working in his costume shop in Priaranza del Bierzo in the northern Spanish region of Castilla y leon when a group of men from a right-wing militia entered.

He was loaded on to the back of a lorry with 14 others and driven to a location outside the town.

Emilio and the rest of the group were summarily executed and thrown into a mass grave.

His crime was to have been a left-wing activist, one of 60 who had lobbied for a secular school for the town.

At the time, the leftist government, which had been elected in 1931, was locked in an increasingly bitter struggle with Spain's right-wing. That included the Catholic Church, and attacks on the clergy by the left intensified.

The political turmoil resulted in the emergence of General Francisco Franco who led his Fascist militia into what became in 1936 the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the period it is believed up to 7,000 Catholic clergy were killed by the left wing Republican side.

In turn the Fascist side, under Franco, was accused of the deaths of perhaps 50,000 people, both during the civil war, and during his dictatorship which lasted until his death in 1975.

Emilio Silva was a typical example. Of the 60 who signed the document seeking a secular school, only three survived.

One of those who did was helped by a local man to escape Franco's militia. Decades later his helper happened to meet Emilio’s son and casually told him he knew where his father was buried.

Today Emilio's grandson, also called Emilio Silva, is the head of the Historical Memory Association.

Emilio Silva (grandson)Speaking on the eve of a controversial new law to deal with the memory of people like his grandfather was due to be passed by the Spanish parliament, Mr Silva said remembering the past was important.

'It's important that Spain, like France and Germany after the Second World War, remember what happened so that we can build some kind of justice for the victims 70 years after the Civil War,' he says.

The new law would remove any symbols of Franco, anul the military tribunals which condemned and often executed those on the left, and fund the exhumation of mass graves.

But it has opened old ghosts and bitter wounds in Spain, where tensions and divisions over the Civil War lie very close to the surface.

Professor Pedro Schwartz The reason, according to Professor Pedro Schwartz of the San Pablo University in Madrid, can be found in the transition to democracy, which took place under the delicate stewardship of King Juan Carlos on Franco's death in November 1975.

There was an agreement that a line should be drawn under the past, and the atrocities carried out by both sides be forgotten.

'Since it was the Francoist politicians who opened up the way to democracy it was seen as the best thing to say, let’s forget about the crimes of the Franco era, let's also forget the crimes committed by the Republican side during the civil war, and let's start again from the beginning.'

But there is a new generation of Spaniards who want answers to what happened, particularly during Franco's brutal dictatorship.  Emilio Silva is one of them.

He says there are some 60 mass graves in different parts of the country, and victims associations need funding to have them exhumed and forensic and DNA testing carried out.

'In Andalusia alone, there are 40,000 people buried in mass graves,' he claims.

The law, however, appears to have deepened divisions in Spain.

Even though it is designed to commemorate all the victims of the civil war, many on the right see it as been part of a wider political agenda by the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose grandfather was killed by Franco's forces.

'It's his way of really trying to make the Peoples Party [the centre-right descendents of Franco's regime] extinct in Spanish politics,' says Professor Schwartz.

The law specifically forbids any statues of Franco, particularly in Catholic churches, and wants streets named after him to be retitled.

'Yes, I understand the request – there are many people who lost relatives, me included,' says Carlos Giron de Velasco, who's father was a Minister for Works in Franco's cabinet. 'But this was solved a long time ago, it's not necessary, and there aren’t so many people who demand these rights.'

The VaticanThe Vatican has also been dragged into the controversy. Last Sunday Pope Benedict presided over the beatification of 498 victims – including two bishops, 24 priests, 262 nuns and monks – who are considered martyrs, since, in the eyes of the Church, they were killed for their faith by the Republicans during the Civil War.

It is being seen by many as a none-to-subtle rebuttal of the Spanish government under Zapatero, since it has pursued a liberal agenda on gay relationships and unmarried couples.

The ceremony, which was attended by 60,000 pilgrims in St Peter's Square in Rome, was marred by protests from left-wing demonstrators who held up banners saying that those who tortured themselves should not be beatified.

Many members of the Catholic Church are accused of torture and killings during the Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War claimed 500,000 lives. The war may have ended 70 years ago, but even in the 21st century its ghosts are refusing to rest.

Tony Connelly