MADRID — With a voice so faint and hoarse it sounded like a whisper, an elderly Spanish woman dressed in black gave Spain's court system its first oral account of right-wing atrocities committed during the country's civil war.
Wednesday's historic testimony from 81-year-old Maria Martin came at the trial of Spain's most prominent judge, Baltasar Garzon, who is facing criminal charges for having opened a probe into such crimes during and after Spain's 1936-1939 civil war.
The civil war and its ruinous aftermath of hunger and disease left an estimated 500,000 people dead, and accounts abound of atrocities that both sides committed during the conflict as Gen. Francisco Franco's right-wing forces overthrew a leftist Republican government and established a dictatorship.
The Franco regime carried out a thorough accounting of civilians killed by Republican troops or militia. But since Franco died in 1975 and democracy was restored three years later, no official government probe has been conducted of atrocities by his supporters, until Garzon launched one in 2008. Those crimes involve the deaths or disappearances of more than 100,000 people.
Garzon, 56, has been accused by two right-wing groups of knowingly overstepping his jurisdiction, a charge that could effectively end his stellar judicial career.
Martin used a walker Wednesday to slowly make her way into the ornate chamber of the Spanish Supreme Court and take her place on a red velvet chair facing a panel of seven judges to testify in defense of Garzon.
A young clerk helped Martin work the microphone as she told the court how at age six, in September 1936, troops loyal to Franco rolled into her village in central Spain and took away 30 people — 27 men and three women, including her mother Agustina.
"They took out of the house and took her away," Martin said, her voice barely audible, her white hair pulled back in a bun.
She later showed reporters photocopies of old pictures of her family and small dog-eared notebook with a hand-drawn map of where she thinks the mass grave holding her mother's remains might be. Her father Mariano was not in the village at the time, she said, although it was not immediately clear why.
She said when her father eventually went to ask about recovering the mother's body, he was threatened.
"'Watch out, or we might do with you what we did with her,'" Martin said her father was told.
Now, however, the Spanish judge who became famous around the world for probing crimes against humanity in other countries and seeking to put those perpetrators on trial in Spain is himself on trial for that investigation. The main argument against him is that wartime atrocities were covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain tried to rebuild and put a dark chapter of its past behind.
Until now, no Spanish court had ever heard testimony from people who lost civilian loved ones to the pro-Franco forces who carried out summary executions and other such crimes, according to an official from the Supreme Court, the tribunal trying Garzon.
Garzon's lawyers are summoning witnesses like Martin in an apparent bid to buttress his argument that he acted not out of leftist political bias or a zeal for headlines — conservatives accuse him of both — but rather to attend to hundreds of thousands of victims, women like Martin, whose rights have been ignored for decades.
Garzon insists his probe was legitimate. He says Franco forces and the regime in its early years waged a systematic campaign to wipe out opponents and this amounted to a crime against humanity that cannot be wiped away by an amnesty law.
Garzon says forced disappearances cannot be covered by Spain's 1977 law because if no bodies have ever been found, the crime is an ongoing, "permanent" one that remains subject to prosecution.
If convicted of knowingly overstepping the limits of his jurisdiction with his abortive probe in 2008 — he bowed out reluctantly in a dispute over jurisdiction — Garzon faces up to 20 years of suspension from the bench, which would effectively end his career as a judge.
Prosecutors say he has committed no crime, but the criminal case is being pursued by right-wing groups who have long criticized the famous judge.
Another witness that testified Wednesday, 75-year-old Pino Sosa from the Canary Islands, said pro-Franco forces took her father away with a group of men.
"They beat them. They kept them as prisoners and did a lot of things to them," Sosa said, adding that Franco forces even stole bread and salt from her home.
Sosa said her mother later fell ill.
"She looked for my father and never found him," Sosa said. Authorities eventually gave her a death certificate for him but she refused to accept it.
"They took him away alive and she wanted him back alive," Sosa testified.