A Scot who destroyed an “illegal” plaque from the era of General Franco near his Galician home is facing a court struggle to clear his name.
Cliff Colman’s act – deemed vandalism by a local court – is seen by many Spaniards as a protest against the country’s reluctance to fully confront its fascist past.
A controversial 2007 law, the History Memory legislation, formally condemned the regime of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. One of the law’s provisions obliges local authorities to remove fascist symbols and other items considered offensive from public spaces.
Yet the dictator’s legacy lives on in plaques, street and town names, and in several massive monuments such as the Victory Arch near the prime minister’s official residence in Madrid.
Colman, 59, who lives in the hamlet of Ouviaño, in the province of Lugo, argues that he did not commit a crime and is to appeal against a Fonsagrada court ruling to a higher Spanish court.
The artist, who is originally from Glasgow, has lived in Ouviaño for four years. He was outraged at the plaque, installed in 1953 in a washhouse near his home, which bore the yoke and arrows insignia of the fascist Spanish Falange group and Franco’s name.
Colman, the son of a Catalan Republican Civil War fighter and a Glaswegian mother, said: “My father fought these fascist bastards. That’s why I destroyed it [the plaque].”
On a hot summer’s day in 2011 Colman says he met a local councillor from Negueira de Muñiz and several others armed with an electric hammer to remove the commemorative plate.
Negueira’s mayor, José Manuel Braña, has told a court that he never gave Colman, who speaks little Spanish, permission to destroy the plaque, a claim the Scot denies.
The councillor left, citing fears over using the hammer near water, Colman says, leaving him to attack the plaque with a sledgehammer.
“It came off beautifully, in chunks,” said Colman.
Since then he has been congratulated by many in the 200-strong municipality of Negueira and beyond.
However, a complaint was filed against the Scot by the mayor and he was fined 50 euro (£42) by the Fonsagrada court and ordered to pay costs for the plaque’s value of ¤348 .
“They are calling it an act of vandalism but the object was illegal. The judge said it was not illegal until the council says it is illegal. I told him it was a case of Lewis Carroll meets Cervantes. There’s a comic side to this but there’s no way I’m going to pay,” said Colman.
The Fonsagrada judge said he recognised that the law requires local authorities to take “appropriate measures” to remove Francoist items but that citizens “cannot remove these themselves”.
Colman lost an appeal to the provincial court in Lugo last month.
His lawyer Florina Garcia said last night: “The plaque is certainly offensive. My client thought he was acting on behalf of the mayor.
“There is a problem of communication and my client has had no translator. There has been a violation of human rights and constitutional rights.”
Garcia, who heads a law firm in Oviedo, said she will file an appeal to the constitutional court in Madrid in the coming days but as it is likely the case will not be heard – unless it is viewed as a political case – the next step is to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Supporters of Colman’s stance include a non-profit body which is the driving force for identifying and exhuming the tens of thousands of people dumped in mass graves during the civil war and in subsequent years – the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH).
Emilio Silva, president of ARMH, said: “The Spanish institutions do not apply the law. While my association is involved in opening graves the situation with plaques and names from the time of the dictator is more or less the same.
“The Spanish government looks the other way.”
Under Franco an estimated 152,000 civilians disappeared or were killed during the 1936-1939 war and in the first 12 years of his dictatorship until 1951. ARMH has names and information for 113,000 people who remain in mass graves but no state funds are used in uncovering these war crime pits. Spain has rejected repeated calls from UN monitors to investigate the disappearance of civilians under Franco.
Carmen García-Rodeja, a regional organiser for ARMH in Galicia, met Colman at an exhumation site five years ago where an anarchist militia band was executed by Franco’s forces during the civil war at O Acebo, close to where the Scot lives.
She said: “Some people think the issue of the plaque is a small matter. But it is symbolic of the atrocities carried out under that regime. The case against Cliff is absurd. But he is tough and clear-minded”.
Colman said last night: “Fascist apologists say Franco wasn’t as bad as Hitler, as if that’s some sort of defence. He was as bad as Pol Pot.”