'Stolen baby' doctor guilty but can't be punished

Ines Madrigal speaks to reporters after today's verdict

A Spanish court has ruled that a doctor stole a newborn child almost five decades ago - but he can not be punished for it.

MADRID'S High Court today found 85-year-old retired doctor Eduardo Vela guilty of three crimes in Spain's first "stolen baby" court case.

The babies were adopted by infertile couples, preferably close to the far-right regime, often with the help of the Catholic Church. Those babies had been stolen from their mothers to be given to families backing the regime, or because their mothers were poor or single.

The guiding principle was that the child would be better off raised by an affluent, conservative and devout Roman Catholic family.

The prosecution is required eleven years of imprisonment against Mr. Vela, regarded as one of the main actors in the trafficking of children while he was obstetrician to the clinic in San Ramon de Madrid. But the court chose to "absolve" the 85-year-old even if they considered him the "perpetrator of all the offences" of which he was accused.

Vila was accused of falsifying documents, illegal adoption, unlawful detention and certifying a non-existent birth.

The abduction charge by Madrigal was brought in April 2012 but since she failed to bring the case against Vela for 25 years after she reached adulthood, Vela remains acquitted as the statute of limitations in these cases is 10 years.

Numerous "stolen babies" cases date back to the right-wing dictatorship of 1939-75 when campaigners say officials took babies from "unsuitable" mothers - often communist or leftists - and gave them to families with connections to the regime.

Vela has for years denied any wrongdoing in Madrigal's case.

But this was overruled by the court.

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Madrigal plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, and if upheld could open the door to thousands more cases of stolen babies going to court.

She told AFP many victims found out they had been robbed from their biological mothers decades after they turned 18.

This is because the court ruled the offences passed the statute of limitations, the law which sets the maximum time a claimant has to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offence.

The newborn-stealing practice began after Franco came to power following Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

Even after Spain transitioned to democracy following Franco's death in 1975, the lucrative practice went on as an illegal trafficking network, up to at least 1987.

Madrigal's was the only case of "stolen babies" - as they are known in Spain - that has made it to the trial stage.

During questioning in the opening session of the trial, Vela said he could not remember details of how the clinic, which he ran for 20 years up to 1982, operated.

An amnesty law adopted in 1977, aimed at smoothing the transition to democracy, made it hard to look into baby trafficking as courts and politicians refused to investigate it.

He said Vela had burned the clinic's archives.

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.

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