By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - A U.N. human rights watchdog urged Spain on Friday to investigate the disappearances of civilians during and after the 1936-1939 civil war, despite Madrid's objection to re-examining past crimes.
A former Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, estimates at least 152,000 civilians disappeared, presumably killed, behind the lines of General Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces during the civil war and then in the first 12 years of his dictatorship, up to 1951.
Spain's delegation told a United Nations panel on November 6 that a 1977 amnesty for political crimes committed during the civil war and the dictatorship would not be reviewed, despite growing calls for a rethink.
But the panel of 10 independent experts who monitor the International Convention on Enforced Disappearances said that there is no amnesty or statute of limitations for such crimes committed by state agents or with their support. Spain is among 40 countries to have signed the 2010 pact.
"It is very important to investigate all enforced disappearances, independent of the date," Alvaro Garce, a Uruguayan lawyer on the U.N. committee, told a news briefing.
"The current application of the amnesty law should not be an obstacle to truth," he said.
Spain must intensify its methods of tracing the disappeared and set up a specialized body to help clarify their fate, the U.N. committee said in its recommendations.
"Families have the right to know the truth regarding the fate of their loved ones who have disappeared," it said.
Former judge Garzon said the subject of the killings is all but taboo in Spain, where right and left have preferred to forget the era. He said he had recorded cases of some 30,000 Spanish children who, during Franco's 35-year rule, were taken at birth from "unsuitable" mothers -- often communists or leftists -- and given to "good Catholic families."
The U.N. pact aims to hold states responsible and defeat impunity for the crime of enforced disappearances, defined as being committed by state agents who arrest or abduct people but conceal their fate or whereabouts, or acquiesce in such acts.
It also aims to prevent new cases, guarantee the right to the truth and obtain reparations for victims and their families.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)