Sitting at a wooden table before the judges of Spain's Supreme Court, Maria Martin Lopez recalls the day a lifetime ago when fascists loyal to General Francisco Franco shot her mother.

White-haired and dressed in black, Martin, 81, described how her mother's killers had punished her afterwards by forcing her to drink castor oil and eat hot chillies in an act of cruelty designed to humiliate a six-year-old child.

They asked for a thousand pesetas and since she didn't have them they threw her into the street. They were taking her to Arenas de San Pedro, but they killed her on the way, Martin said of that day in 1936.

Her testimony, and that of other Franco victims, was broadcast during the trial of crusading human rights judge Baltasar Garzon, a case that has split the nation and rekindled debate over whether Spain should do more to face a painful chapter from its past.

The Supreme Court is trying the judge for allegedly violating a 1977 law pardoning the crimes of the Franco regime.

Specifically, Garzon is accused of illegally ordering an inquiry into tens of thousands of suspected murders by forces loyal to the dictator.

The judge - a hero in Spain when he used international human rights law to secure the arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 - has ended up in the dock for trying to apply the same principles at home.

Ironically, the judge's trial for shining the spotlight on the Franco era has allowed victims of Spain's 1936-1939 civil war and the ensuing dictatorship to tell their stories at the top court for the first time.

Testimony in the trial wrapped up this week and a verdict will come in a few weeks.

The generation with memories of the war may have had its last chance to air grievances at the Garzon trial, which exposed once again how partisan the view of the war still is in Spain.

Until recently those interested in a rigorous assessment of the civil war and the Franco era had to look to foreign historians because objective accounts from within Spain were hard to find.

The Spanish civil war became a curtain-raiser for World War Two and the fight against fascism in Europe when Hitler and Mussolini provided arms and funding for Franco's forces. Stalin backed communists fighting against them and Franco saw himself as a stalwart sentinel against communism.

Intellectuals on the left and writers such as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell joined forces fighting to maintain Spain's Republican government against a coup by Franco.

While a romantic view of the war often prevailed outside Spain, for many decades fear kept Spaniards from discussing the conflict or the reprisals by Franco's troops that followed.

LITTLE CHANCE OF TRIALS

The fear faded when Spain returned to democracy after Franco's death in 1975, but new generations of Spaniards concentrated on protecting their fragile new political settlement, plastering over old divisions.

Then their attention turned to economic growth and opening up to the world after decades of isolation. Old grievances, if not forgotten, had to be put aside, with the children of victims often living alongside the children of their parents' killers.

Legal experts believe there is little chance, given the amount of time that has passed and the amnesty law, that alleged war criminals from Spain's past will ever be dragged before the courts.

However, some relatives of Franco's victims have taken their cases to a judge in Argentina who in December asked Spain for the names of ministers and police chiefs during the dictatorship.

Many conservative and right-wing commentators were alarmed at the sight of Franco's victims being allowed to tell their stories in Garzon's defence.

Only the complicity of certain judges can explain the spectacle that Garzon has set up, putting 80-somethings on the stand dressed in mourning to tell how they lost their parents in the war, Federico Jimenez Losantos, renowned for raising hackles, wrote in newspaper El Mundo.

Particularly galling to some Spaniards is that international human rights organisations have monitored the trial, implying that the justice system is politically biased.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have rallied to the defence of Garzon, arguing the disappearances during the Franco era were crimes against humanity and that the 1977 amnesty needs to be set aside.

CLEAN HANDS

Spain's Supreme Court is coming under attack from both sides. At demonstrations in support of Garzon, protesters called members of the court fascists for accepting a case brought by private organisations, some with links to the extreme right, without the support of the public prosecutor.

Tens of thousands joined Facebook groups criticising the judges and championing Garzon as a defender of human rights. Others denounced him as a red enemy.

Spanish law allows individuals or groups to bring private prosecutions. Garzon has been facing two additional trials over his work as a magistrate - and many, including some conservatives, think the Franco investigation prompted his enemies to bring the other charges.

In one of those cases, the Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred Garzon, 56, for eleven years for illegally tapping defence lawyers' conversations.

Clean Hands, one of two groups that brought charges against Garzon, is based in a small office in Madrid with a Spanish flag flying at the window. The group describes itself as an independent trade union that set itself up to tackle corruption in the style of the Italian movement of the same name.

Critics, however, say it has links to the extreme right.

What Garzon has done is provoke another confrontation, and insults, he's opened up wounds that had been totally healed, Miguel Bernard Remon, the group's general secretary, told Reuters.

In the Civil War there were atrocities by both one side and the other. If we have to judge what happened then it should be judged by an international court listening to both versions, he said.

But the victims' associations backing Garzon say their wounds never healed and finding their relatives' remains is essential to putting the past behind them.

One witness at the trial, Antonio Solsona, told the court his family had never traced the remains of his father, who was tortured and shot eight years after the Civil War had ended, probably because a local police chief heard his family had given food to surviving Republican soldiers hiding in the countryside.

The bodies of Solsona's father, and of Martin's mother, were likely dumped in one of the many unmarked mass graves that litter Spain.

Some relatives of victims have managed to find the whereabouts of their loved ones from accounts from witnesses in villages, but many others say the Spanish authorities have not released documents that could help.

British historian Paul Preston estimates 200,000 civilians were killed far from the front line in the war -- mostly Republicans but also supporters of Franco -- and thousands more during the dictatorship, a phenomenon he called The Spanish Holocaust in his latest book on the war and its aftermath.

Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was among those believed to have been shot by Franco's forces in 1936 for being sympathetic to the Republican forces and gay.

Irish historian Ian Gibson, who participated in pro-Garzon protests outside the court house, believes Lorca's body is buried along with three others in a remote area outside the city of Granada.

But a two-month excavation - against the wishes of the Lorca family - failed to find any human remains.

TELL ME HOW IT HAPPENED

While Spaniards are in a way far more liberal, socially, than, say Britons, when it comes to confronting the past they really flinch, says Patrick Buckley, a Spanish-British scriptwriter whose father covered the civil war as a journalist.

Buckley helped create Tell me what it was like, a hit soap opera running on Spanish television since 2001, describing the latter years of the Franco era from 1968 through the story of the fictional Alcantara family.

Buckley, a former Reuters correspondent, said that although debate has reheated due to the Garzon trial, he doubts the thorny issue of unmarked graves will be resolved one way or another in the short term.

The majority of Spaniards would say Garzon is probably right. We should open up graves, find out who did what, at least it would be out in the open. But the majority of Spaniards probably also say what's the point?

THE FALLEN

Still, some victims' families have pushed for the exhumation of remains from the war and its aftermath.

Pedro Fausto Canales, 74, told the Supreme Court his father Valerico was among seven people shot in a ditch in his village in Avila province by the forces of Franco in August 1936.

A local resident was forced to bury the group but 23 years later the corpses were dug up and taken away for burial.

Canales has recently confirmed stories from his village that the corpses were reburied at the Valley of the Fallen, a huge basilica carved out of a hillside near Madrid, which Franco commissioned after his victory in the war.

Testimony in the Garzon trial has also fed a public debate on the disputed status of the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum.

Franco originally meant the monument for the remains of troops that died on his side, but the dictator needed to fill the enormous crypt at the basilica and ordered corpses to be delivered without the permission of families on both sides.

Although Franco argued the site was about reconciliation, few would agree nowadays.

I will only return to that place to remove my father and his six friends and bring them home, Canales said, although experts have said it is not feasible to separate and identify the remains at the site.

Spain's previous Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose grandfather was shot by Franco forces,

promised to transform Valley of the Fallen from a right-wing rallying point to a historic landmark.

Zapatero set up a commission of experts, which recommended that Franco's remains be removed -- since he did not die in the war, but decades later -- and that an interpretive centre be set up to tell visitors how the site was built with forced labour from the losing side.

A centre-right government now in power and focused on Spain's worst economic crisis in a generation is unlikely to implement the recommendations despite consensus on all of them, bar the moving of Franco's remains, which three right-of-centre commission members were against.

Now the government has the crisis as an excuse, even though changing the Valley need not be costly, said commission member Francisco Ferrandiz, a social anthropologist who works for the state-run Higher Council for Scientific Research.

Some people have said changing the site could destabilise our democracy but I think Spain has a strong enough democracy to avoid that, Ferrandiz told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Martin Roberts and Carlos Ruano; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Giles Elgood)