Spain edges toward rehabilitating officers who pushed for democracy

It took Fermin Ibarra, the unassuming father of five children, years to get his job running a computer center at Madrid's town hall. Why?

Because the former Army artillery captain was court-martialed in the last years of Franco rule. His offense: promoting democratic ideals.

He was one of nine such officers. Expelled from the Army but amnestied by a general pardon in 1977, Mr. Ibarra and his comrades in arms are still waiting to be rehabilitated. As a matter of principle, they want the Army to offer them their old jobs back.

The case of the nine officers and what one Madrid daily calls ``the debt of honor'' democratic Spain owes them has long been a pending issue. Vice-Premier Alfonso Guerra has declared the Socialist government must resolve the matter in the current legislative session.

``Democratic principles themselves make it an obligation,'' he said, ``especially when it concerns a group of people who believed in democracy when it hadn't even been established.''

In the post-Franco years, the issue of rehabilitation has served as a gauge for measuring democratic feeling in the Army. The nine officers were members of the Democratic Military Union (UMD), which aimed to foster a new democratic awareness in the Army and help pave the way for democracy. The group grew quickly, and at the time of the arrests in 1975 counted no fewer than 300 members.

Members were to learn about political systems but not join in any party activities. The group was to disband when democracy was established; it did so a few days after the 1977 elections. The UMD also proposed a series of military reforms such as uniting the armed forces under the Defense Ministry.

The UMD is often linked to Portugal's Armed Forces Movement and the April 1974 revolution. The UMD did receive moral support from Portugal's military, but contacts were superficial and their aims were different. The UMD's objective was to help introduce democracy, but leave the governing to politicians.

The military establishment has resisted attempts to rehabilitate the former officers. -- 30 -- {et

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