The first court hearing against an alleged enforcer of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco‘s widespread baby-snatching policy began on June 26.

Tens of thousands of newborn babies were stolen under Franco’s rule between 1939 and 1975. The infants were seized from regime opponents and unmarried or poor couples and adopted out. The mothers were often told their babies had perished and that the hospital had taken care of their burial.

As reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, campaigners said a vast network of doctors, nurses, nuns and priests stole tens of thousands of babies until 1987 – 12 years after Franco’s death.

On trial is Eduardo Vela. He stands accused of taking baby Ines Madrigal from her biological mother in 1969 while he worked as a gynaecologist at the now-defunct San Ramon clinic in Madrid. Vela was charged with falsifying official documents, illegal adoption, unlawful detention and certifying a non-existent birth to allow another woman to take custody of the baby.

In an interview with the BBC in 2011, Vela defended his actions by grabbing a metal crucifix and saying: “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers,” he said.

In a separate report, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) noted that 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 babies born out of wedlock.