An 85-year-old doctor appeared in the dock on Tuesday in the first trial in Spain over thousands of suspected cases of babies stolen from their mothers during the Franco era, amid emotional protests outside the Madrid court.
Dozens of demonstrators, many wearing yellow T-shirts with the slogan "Justice", gathered outside the building as Eduardo Vela, who worked as a gynaecologist at the now-defunct San Ramon clinic in Madrid, arrived.
Carmen Lorente, who came to the court from the southern city of Seville to protest, said she was told her baby son suffocated in the womb even though she recalls hearing him cry after giving birth in 1979.
"It is a very important day for all those who are affected and for all mothers because a precedent is created by this man sitting in the dock," she said.
Vela is accused of having in 1969 taken Ines Madrigal, now aged 49, from her biological mother, and given her to another woman who raised her and was falsely certified as her birth mother.
Prosecutors are seeking an 11-year jail term for falsifying official documents, illegal adoption, unlawful detention and certifying a non-existent birth.
Vela denied any wrongdoing and could not remember much when he took the stand.
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, or unmarried or poor couples, were removed from their mothers and adopted. The practice was later expanded.
New mothers were frequently told their babies had died suddenly within hours of birth and the hospital had taken care of their burials when in fact they were given or sold to another family.
- 'Day to celebrate' -
Madrigal, a railway worker who heads the Murcia branch of the SOS Stolen Babies association, said she did not expect Vela to provide answers about her origins or apologise.
But she hoped his two-day trial would mark a turning point that leads the authorities to reopen investigations into other "stolen babies" cases.
"A mother can never forget her child," she told reporters outside the court.
"Mothers want to tell their children that they did not abandon them... but above all they want to know that they are well."
Vela was interviewed briefly by police after a magazine in 1982 published interviews with several women who claimed they had been cheated of their babies after giving birth at San Ramon but the probe went nowhere.
He told investigators in 2013 that as the director of the clinic he often signed papers without reading them but in court Tuesday he said he could not recall basic information about the clinic such as the number of beds it had and denied the signature on Madrigal's birth certificate was his.
"That is not mine," he said in a weak voice when asked to look at the signature.
The trial will wrap on Wednesday. No date has been set for a verdict.
Speaking to reporters after the first session of the trial ended, Madrigal said it was "day to celebrate".
"Today I had the chance, that thousands of victims will not have, to speak before judges so they can issue a verdict," she said.
- Cases shelved -
The practice of stealing babies began after Franco came to power following Spain's 1936-39 civil war pitting left-wing Republicans against conservative Nationalists loyal to the general, as part of an effort to purge Spain of Marxist influence.
Beginning in the 1950s it was expanded to take newborns from poor families as well as illegitimate babies.
The guiding principle was that the child would be better off raised by an affluent, conservative and devout Roman Catholic family.
The system -- which allegedly involved a vast network of doctors, nurses, nuns and priests -- 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.
Campaigners say at least 2,000 other complaints for similar cases have been filed but up until now none has gone to trial in a country still coming to terms with the dictator's legacy.
Cases have been shelved due to a lack of evidence or because the statute of limitations had passed.
In 2013, an 87-year-old nun who worked with Vela and appeared in court for questioning as a suspect, died just before she was due to go on trial.
Demonstrators hold placards reading "human rights for stolen babies" on the opening day of the first trial in Madrid over thousands of suspected cases of babies stolen from their mothers during the Franco era
Demonstrators outside a Madrid court on the first day of the first trial over thousands of suspected cases of babies stolen from their mothers during the Franco era