Spain's Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the green light for the government to remove the remains of Francisco Franco from a grandiose state mausoleum, rejecting an appeal against it by the late dictator's descendants.
In a unanimous ruling, the court decided "to completely reject the appeal lodged by the family in relation to Francisco Franco's exhumation," the judges wrote.
The ruling was hailed as "a great victory for Spanish democracy" by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez whose government wants to transfer the remains as soon as possible.
But the family and supporters of the late dictator reacted with sadness and anger, vowing to leave no stone unturned in their bid to have the decision reversed.
Franco, who ruled with an iron fist following the end of the 1936-39 civil war, is buried in an imposing basilica carved into a mountain in the Valley of the Fallen, 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside Madrid.
But plans to move his remains to another site have divided opinion in Spain, which is still conflicted over the dictatorship that ended with Franco's death in 1975.
Sanchez's government has made transferring Franco's remains a priority, saying Spain should not "continue to glorify" the dictator, whose hillside mausoleum is topped by a 150-meter (500-feet) cross and has attracted both tourists and rightwing sympathizers.
The government had planned to move Franco's remains to a more discreet tomb on June 10, but the court suspended the exhumation pending appeal by Franco's heirs.
Tuesday's hearing was one of four appeals against the plan, but arguably the one that carries the most weight, with a court spokesman saying it was "foreseeable" the judges would issue a similar verdict in the remaining three cases.
It was not immediately clear when the court would rule on the other three appeals.
'Let the dead rest in peace'
But the ruling was denounced by the family, who pledged to fight on, with their lawyer Felipe Utrera Molina saying the decision was "a violation of (family's) the right to intimacy".
"From the start, my clients decided to fight for dignity to the very end so we will exhaust every means in our power, at the Constitutional Court as well as the European Court of Human Rights," he told Spain's TVE public television.
And in the Valley of the Fallen, around 40 supporters people gathered for a mass at the basilica where Franco lies, his tomb just behind the altar covered with fresh flowers.
"I have come specifically to say goodbye to Franco," said 56-year-old Mariano Zafra, sitting close to the altar.
"This is the proof that there is a hatred among the left for this man," he told AFP. "Who are they to touch the body of Franco?"
And the ruling drew a sharp response from one of the Benedictine monks serving at the site, who have also filed an appeal against his exhumation.
"The basilica is a sacred church and they can't come in here and smash everything up like a bull in a China shop," monk Julio Iglesias said.
"They should let the dead rest in peace, all of them."
Built by forced labor
Many on the left are repulsed by the huge memorial at the Valley of the Fallen, comparing it to a monument glorifying Hitler.
The site was built by Franco's regime between 1941 and 1959 -- in part by the forced labor of some 20,000 political prisoners -- and the monument holds the remains of more than 33,000 dead from both sides of the civil war.
Tuesday's ruling also validated the government's plans to rebury Franco's remains next to those of his wife in the family tomb at Mingorrubio El Pardo, a state cemetery 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Madrid where various political figures are buried.
The family had said that if the exhumation had to go ahead they wanted Franco to be moved to the Almudena Cathedral in the center of Madrid.
As the court met in Madrid, some 30 demonstrators gathered outside, waving Republican flags and pictures of family members who disappeared during the Franco years.
One was 87-year-old Bellido Gutierrez whose father was killed in 1939.
"It would be a lack of respect for my father if Franco wasn't exhumed or if they put him in the Almudena," he told AFP.
The court ruling comes as Spain gears up for its fourth election in as many years on November 10.