Spain trial over 'stolen babies' set to resume

Madrid (AFP) –


Spain's first trial linked to thousands of suspected cases of babies stolen from their mothers during the Franco era will resume in a Madrid court on Tuesday, decades after the scandal broke.

Eduardo Vela, 85, a former gynaecologist at the now-defunct San Ramon clinic in Madrid, is accused of having in 1969 taken Ines Madrigal, now aged 49, from her biological mother and given her to another woman, who then raised her and was falsely certified as her birth mother.

During questioning in the opening session of the trial on June 26, Vela said he could not remember details of how the clinic, which he ran for 20 years up to 1982 and is believed to have been a centre for baby trafficking, operated and that the signature on Madrigal's birth certificate was not his.

Vela -- the first person prosecuted over the "stolen babies" scandal which broke in the media in the 1980s -- was due to return to the witness stand the following day but instead he went to hospital after falling ill.

He is expected to take the witness stand again when the high-profile trial resumes on Tuesday at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) for a final session. No date has been given for when a verdict will be handed down.

Six other people are scheduled to testify, including a journalist with French public television station France 2 who used a hidden camera to record Vela as he appeared to confess to having given Madrigal away as a "gift". She will answer questions by video conference, according to a court source.

Prosecutors are seeking an 11-year jail sentence for falsifying official documents, illegal adoption, unlawful detention and certifying a non-existent birth.

Activists say hundreds of similar cases have failed to make it to court in Spain because of a lack of evidence or because the time limit to file charges has passed.

- More culprits -

Enrique Vila, a lawyer who has written extensively about the "stolen babies" scandal, said Vela's trial could provide "moral" encouragement for other victims to bring forward lawsuits.

"There are dozens of doctors and nuns across Spain who are guilty" and who are still alive, he told AFP.

In a dark and often overlooked chapter of General Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship, the newborns of some left-wing opponents of the regime, as well as of unmarried or poor couples, were removed from their mothers and adopted.

New mothers were frequently told their babies had died suddenly within hours of birth and the hospital had taken care of their burials, but in fact they were given or sold to another family.

Baby stealing began in the 1950s after Franco came to power following the 1936-39 civil war pitting left-wing Republicans against conservative Nationalists loyal to the general. It was part of an effort to purge Spain of Marxist influence.

It was expanded to take newborns from poor families as well as illegitimate babies.

The system outlived Franco's death in 1975 and carried on as an illegal baby trafficking network until 1987 when a new law that regulated adoption more tightly was introduced.

Campaigners estimate tens of thousands of babies may have been stolen from their parents over the decades.

The cases echo events that took place during Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Courts there have since handed down lengthy jail terms for the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners.