Ines Madrigal (C) speaks to journalists outside a Madrid court after attending the reading of the veredict for the trial of the so-called "stolen babies" scandal, on October 8, 2018. (Photo: AFP)
An elderly Spanish doctor escaped punishment on Monday in the country's first "stolen babies" trial, despite a court finding him guilty of taking a newborn baby from her mother for illegal adoption under the Franco dictatorship.
The Madrid court ruled that Eduardo Vela had seized Ines Madrigal from her biological mother in 1969, but said he could not be legally convicted because she waited too long to file a complaint against him.
Madrigal, now 49, is one of thousands of babies removed from their mothers -- who were told their children had died -- and adopted during and after General Francisco Franco's 1939-1975 rule, in what became a nationwide scandal.
Speaking at the court after the ruling Madrigal said the verdict was "bittersweet".
It's "a way of saying -- we recognise this but we're not going to stick our neck out for this", she said, adding that the guilty verdict was nevertheless a "milestone at a European level".
Doctors played a major part in the scheme to provide infertile couples -- preferably those close to the regime -- with stolen newborns, often with the help of the Catholic Church.
Initially, babies were taken from left-wing opponents of the regime, with the practice later expanded to supposedly illegitimate children and those from poor families.
The newborns were meant to be raised by affluent, conservative and devout Roman Catholic families.
- 'Perpetrator of all offences' -
Prosecutors wanted Vela, who used to run a clinic, jailed for 11 years.
But the court decided to "absolve" the 85-year-old even if they considered him the "perpetrator of all the offences" of which he was accused.
These included falsifying documents, illegal adoption, unlawful detention and certifying a non-existent birth.
The court ruled that under Spanish law, after she turned 18 in June 1987, Madrigal had a legal deadline of 10 years to file a complaint for unlawful detention.
Madrigal though says she only found out in 2010 that she was a "stolen baby" and filed her complaint two years later.
As such, Madrigal's lawyer Guillermo Pena argued that the deadline did not apply in her case.
But this was overruled by the court.
Madrigal said she would appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.
The verdict angered other victims.
Irene Meca, 65, whose late adoptive mother confessed she paid money for her in 1953, was also at the court to hear the decision.
She told AFP many victims found out they had been robbed from their biological mothers decades after they turned 18.
If the legal deadline cited by the court had been discarded, she added, "a lot of other cases would have hope of going ahead".
- Baby-trafficking -
The baby-stealing practice began after Franco came to power following the 1936-39 civil war.
Even after Spain transitioned to democracy following Franco's death in 1975, the trafficking went on up to at least 1987.
Campaigners estimate tens of thousands of babies may have been stolen from their parents over the decades.
During the trial, Vela said he could not remember details about the operation of the clinic, which he ran for 20 years up to 1982.
- Clinic records torched -
A policeman who probed the case and testified in court said the clinic was a centre for baby trafficking.
He said Vela had burnt the clinic's archives.
The policeman said Vela was part of a "plot" to take babies from single mothers in shelters, which were often run by religious orders.
Emilie Helmbacher, a French journalist, also testified by video conference.
In an investigation in Madrid in December 2013, she used a hidden camera to record Vela as he appeared to confess to having given Madrigal away as a "gift" in June 1969.
Vela's lawyer Rafael Casas criticised the hidden camera recording. He said his client had "nothing to do" with the alleged deeds.