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World

First Stolen Baby Case From Franco Dictatorship Goes To Court In Spain

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Thousands of babies were allegedly stolen from their mothers during the years of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. Now the first stolen baby case has gone to court. The trial is expected to last months. It could set a precedent for other cases. As Lucia Benavides reports from Spain, it's a dark part of Spanish history that is finally getting more recognition.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: In a small Madrid courtroom, Dr. Eduardo Vela sits slumped over a chair, mumbling into the microphone as his hands quiver. The-85-year-old is accused of falsifying child birth records in connection to a baby born in Madrid in 1969. He faces up to 11 years in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDUARDO VELA: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: He denies any wrongdoing and says he doesn't remember. So many years have passed. Due to Vela's health, the trial was suspended after one day of testimony. It's scheduled to resume September 4. But it drew dozens of protesters chanting for justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

BENAVIDES: Between 1939 and the late 1980s, it's alleged that up to 300,000 babies were stolen from their birth mothers and sold into adoption. It started out as a political tactic used by Francisco Franco's regime to wipe out communist tendencies. They feared women who had fought for the republic during the Civil War would raise their children to be opponents of the dictatorship. During Franco's reign and even after the country's return to democracy in 1977, the trafficking of babies continued. It had become a huge illegal moneymaking business.

GUILLERMO PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: Guillermo Pena, a lawyer representing the woman taking Dr. Vela to court, says people paid up to $7,000 to illegally adopt babies. And like many crimes from the Franco period, it was never discussed.

PENA: (Through interpreter) What was the country's greatest mistake? To look the other way and let this happen.

BENAVIDES: There was a reason the country looked the other way, says Soledad Luque, president of an organization that helps victims looking for their families.

SOLEDAD LUQUE: (Through interpreter) It was institutional, and that's why they insist that it was a business - to take away responsibility from the state.

BENAVIDES: Luque says the trafficking of babies was one of Franco's crimes against humanity. She considers herself to be a victim. When she was born to working-class parents in 1965, her twin brother was pronounced dead. Her parents asked to see the body. But the nurse, who was a nun, said the boy had already been cremated and the hospital had lost the ashes. The family still doesn't know what happened to her twin brother.

LUQUE: (Through interpreter) At that time, could they have thought he had been stolen? No. What they were angry about was the lack of sensitivity, for not asking permission.

BENAVIDES: In countries like Argentina and Ireland where baby trafficking also took place, there have been official apologies by those governments, and some families have been reunited. But in Spain, over 3,000 stolen baby cases are still pending, and only one has made it to court. The lawyer Guillermo Pena hopes the Madrid trial will show at least some of the victims that they can get justice.

PENA: (Through interpreter) I think we're closer this year more than last year. The problem is the time that's passed. Everything's happening too late.

BENAVIDES: At this point, Pena adds, it's not about sending people to prison but about reclaiming Spain's history. For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARACHUTE BAND'S "CONSECRATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.