Leaders’ arrests fail to silence Basque independence movement

Almost 40,000 Basques protest against the arrest of the Batasuna leadership in San Sebastian

Almost 40,000 Basques protest against the arrest of the Batasuna leadership in San Sebastian

Published in An Phoblacht on 22 October 2009

A MASSIVE PROTEST was held on Saturday 17 October in Donostia/San Sebastian in the Basque Country to protest against the Spanish Government’s new wave of arrests against the Basque pro-independence and labour movement.

On Tuesday 13 October, 10 prominent activists, including Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi and former general secretary of the left-wing LAB trade union Rafa Diez, were arrested and accused of trying to “reorganise the leadership” of the Basque left-nationalist movement. Five of the 10 were arrested in a raid on the national headquarters of the LAB union in Donostia.

On Friday, Judge Baltasar Garzon sent Otegi, Diez and three others to jail, accused of “membership of a terrorist organisation” and of trying to reconstitute the pro-independence Batasuna party on the “orders of ETA”. Batasuna was outlawed in 2003.

On Saturday, more than 37,000 Basques protested against the arrests under the slogan “For liberty, for rights for every person” in a very significant demonstration of unity among Basque society, with several major trade unions from across the political spectrum, left-nationalists and the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) marching together.

Batasuna responded to the arrests by saying: “The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country.”

Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún said the arrests are a step backwards and will ultimately impact on the task of rebuilding the peace process and dialogue.

“Sinn Féin has argued the need to revive the Basque peace process. The banning of Batasuna, alongside the continued jailing of political representatives, will in no way aid this task.

“The arrest of Arnaldo Otegi as the leader of Batasuna and nine other members of the party by the Spanish Government is a step backwards and will make the process of rebuilding and reinvigorating efforts towards a lasting peace process all the more difficult.

“It will further impede any search for progress, which requires that every effort be made to improve and encourage dialogue between all of the parties in the Basque Country and the Spanish Government. Punitive measures and criminalisation from the Spanish authorities will not advance these goals.”

The latest arrests are part of the Spanish Government’s ongoing campaign of repression against political, social, labour and cultural organisations in favour of self-determination for the Basque Country.

The central thesis of this criminalisation campaign, as formulated by Judge Garzon, is that “everything that surrounds ETA is ETA” – that is, any group or individual that shares ETA’s general goal of Basque independence, regardless of what methods they use, is part of ETA.

This process has often been led by politicians and the media but is given a ‘democratic’ cover and institutionalised by the Spanish courts through a series of judicial rulings initiated by Garzon in 1998 (called the “18/98 macro proceedings”).

The repression against all expressions of Basque nationalism has escalated dramatically during the summer, with the Madrid Government working in concert with the Spanish coalition government that took power in the south-west of the Basque Country in March.

As a result of the Spanish authorities banning left-wing nationalists from standing for election on 1 March – disenfranchising more than 100,000 Basques – the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) lost control of the regional parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community (comprising three of the seven historic Basque provinces – Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba) for the first time since limited autonomy was granted to the region in 1980. The two main Spanish parties, the PSE (the Basque branch of the PSOE, the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and the right-wing PP (Popular Party) allied to outweigh the PNV’s seats and formed government, immediately launching a fierce wave of repression against all expressions of Basque nationalism.

One of the new government’s most significant policies has been to label the display in public of photographs of Basque political prisoners as “glorifying terrorism”.

The Ertzaintza (Basque-Spanish police in the autonomous community) have relentlessly attacked the popular traditional festivals throughout the summer to confiscate pictures of prisoners by force, heightening political tension in the Basque Country.

Demonstrations in solidarity with the prisoners have repeatedly been prohibited and attacked, and pubs and other premises that dare to display prisoners’ pictures have been hit with large fines or closed.

The number of Basque citizens who have been indicted over the summer under the charge of ‘glorifying terrorism’ as a result of the prisoners’ pictures issue has been estimated at 1,000.

In the town of Villabona, on 31 July, the Ertzaintza violently attacked the weekly vigil in solidarity with the political prisoners, which takes place every Friday in about 70 towns and cities across the Basque Country. The police began harassing 27-year-old local pro-independence councillor and deputy mayor Remi Aiestaran, who collapsed and died from a heart attack following the provocation.

Speaking at a conference in the Basque city of Bilbao in early October, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, Martin Scheinin, criticised the policy of removing the prisoners’ pictures, saying their display is “a personal act by the families of the prisoners” and should not be construed as ‘glorifying terrorism’.

By its longstanding and illegal ‘dispersal’ policy – introduced in 1989 and designed to demoralise and isolate political prisoners and their families – and the repressive and anti-democratic policy enforced over the summer of trying to criminalise even the simple display of photos of their faces, Spanish authorities have ensured that the prisoners’ rights have become a central political issue.

The 741 Basque political prisoners currently in jail – the highest number since the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco – are being held in 82 prisons across France and Spain, on average about 600km from the Basque Country.

The widespread allegations and documentation of torture of political prisoners adds to the movement in solidarity with the prisoners.

The use of torture by the Spanish police while prisoners are detained incommunicado has been documented and criticised by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, among others.

Professor Scheinin released a report last December criticising Spain’s ‘anti-terrorism’ regime. The UN Special Rapporteur reported the abuse of the rights of ‘terror suspect’ detainees, who may be held incommunicado for up to five days without charge.

On 15 September, Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty’s Europe programme director, said: “Incommunicado detention must be relegated to the past. No other European Union country maintains a detention regime with such severe restrictions on the rights of detainees.

“It is inadmissible that in present-day Spain anyone who is arrested for whatever reason should disappear as if in a black hole for days on end. Such lack of transparency can be used as a veil to hide human rights violations.”

Arnaldo Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi

The Basque human rights NGO Torturaren Aurkako Taldea (Group Against Torture – TAT) listed testimonies of serious torture from 62 people in 2008, most of whom had been held incommunicado, including beatings, sexual assault, asphyxiation with plastic bags, food and sleep deprivation, stress positions, and threats to rape or kill victims or their partners or family members, among other abuses.

In the December UN report, Professor Scheinin slammed the Spanish Government’s Law of Political Parties, ad-hoc legislation introduced in 2002 with the explicit intention of criminalising Batasuna. The law insists all parties must denounce anti-state violence or be banned. Scheinin said the law defined ‘terrorism’ so vaguely that it “might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives” as those pursued by armed organisations.

Similarly, the Special Rapporteur stated that the law against “glorifying terrorism” “should include the requirements of an intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, as well as the existence of an actual risk that such an offence will be committed as a consequence”.

But as well as the raft of ‘legal’ or legislative attacks on the rights of the Basque left nationalist movement, there is also evidence that the Spanish state security forces are renewing the ‘dirty war’ against the movement.

In the most sinister case, Jon Anza, ETA militant and former prisoner, disappeared on 18 April after boarding a train heading towards the French city of Toulouse. ETA released a statement a month later stating that he was a member of the organisation, that the Spanish police were aware of this, that he was scheduled to meet with other ETA members in France, but that he failed to show up.

On 2 October, Gara revealed that, according to trusted sources, Anza was kidnapped by the Spanish police from the train to Toulouse and taken for interrogation. Anza, who was very ill and almost blind at the time, was killed by the police during the course of the interrogation, according to the Gara sources, and his body buried in an unknown location in France.

Thousands of people have participated in demonstrations across the Spanish and French states, carrying banners demanding “Where is Jon?” since the public announcement of his disappearance in May. But despite the widespread belief among Basque society that Anza’s disappearance was orchestrated by the Spanish security forces, and considerable speculation in the French media about the case, the disappearance has been met with a steely silence by the Spanish media and politicians.

Juan Mari Mujika, Lander Fernandez, Alain Berastegi and Dani Saralegi, all pro-independence activists, have  reported being kidnapped, interrogated, threatened and tortured by Spanish security forces this year.

Pro-independence activist and former prisoner  Berastegi was called out to do a building job in Irunberri, near Irunea/Pamplona, on 17 July, then kidnapped by 10 armed and masked men, who beat him and asphyxiated him with a plastic bag while asking him to collaborate with them or face jail if he didn’t.

These cases are part of an escalating pattern of illegal kidnappings, detentions and torture by Spanish police and intelligence agents and bring back dark memories of the dirty war tactics of the 1970s and 1980s.

Francoists had waged a dirty war of state-sponsored death squad attacks against ETA and pro-independence activists from 1975-1982, believed to be responsible for killing at least 47 people. Then, under the PSOE Government, the GAL (Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups) organised a series of kidnappings, torture and assassinations targeting the Basque political refugees living in exile in the Basque regions within the French state from 1983-86, killing 27 people – some ETA activists, some political activists and some unconnected to politics.

The PSOE leader and Spanish President during these years, Felipe Gonzalez, infamously said during the GAL trials in the 1990s – which saw former Interior Minster Barrionuevo and his deputy jailed for their role in organising the death squads – that “Democracy is defended in the sewers as well as in the salons.”

The banning of Batasuna in 2003 was followed by a campaign against candidates and activists of other left-nationalist electoral groupings including the ANV (Basque Nationalist Action), the Communist Party of the Basque Lands, and Demokrazia 3 Miloi (Democracy 3 Million) which was formed to contest the 1 March regional elections in the autonomous community but was banned in the lead-up to the poll, meaning the left-nationalists were completely excluded from participating in the elections. Despite the repression, more than 100,000 people (8%) voted using ‘illegal’ ballots the movement had printed itself in a mass act of defiance against the bannings.

Then, in May, the Spanish Government tried to ban the newly launched Internationalist Initiative – the Solidarity of the Peoples candidates from contesting the June European Parliament elections. II was a joint ticket of Spanish left-wing parties and several national pro-independence movements within the Spanish state, with world-renowned Spanish playwright Alfonso Sastre (83) the platform’s main candidate.

The Supreme Court overturned the ban on appeal before the poll took place but several serious cases of electoral fraud were documented, in particular missing ballots, leading the II to say that there was a very real possibility that a rightful seat in the European Parliament was denied them. Despite the evidence of electoral fraud, the II’s complaints received virtually no attention from the Spanish Government and media or EU institutions.

The latest arrests are also the outcome of the political parties law through the 18/98 cases, the Jarrai-Haika-Segi case (that put the leadership of the left-nationalist youth movement on trial), and other cases.

In July, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Spanish Government’s banning of Batasuna, endorsing “an infringement of the basic rights to political action and representation”, according to the outlawed party. The Spanish Government has delightedly sent a copy of the ruling to all its embassies to back up a campaign to silence international support for the right to Basque self-determination and is seeking the extradition of Basque political exiles from countries around the world. Venezuela and France have recently rejected such extraditions. In Ireland, Basque activists Inaki de Juana and Arturo Benat Villnueva are fighting extradition from Belfast to Spain.

As the repression escalates, the international community can show its support for the rights of the Basque people by protesting against the ECHR’s politically-motivated ruling that disenfranchises Basque citizens and closes off avenues to dialogue and peace, and by campaigning for a rejection of the extradition attempts of Basque activists – which would be an international rejection of the Spanish Government’s criminalisation campaign as being against international standards of democratic and human rights.

In the wake of last week’s arrests, Batasuna released a discussion document, reported in the left-nationalist newspaper Gara on Tuesday 20 October, which outlined this new initiative aimed at resolving the political conflict in the Basque Country “without any violence and external interference”.

Batasuna says it aims to build the broadest possible united front of nationalists against Spanish aggression, in favour of the defence of the democratic process, the release of political prisoners and the reconstruction of the negotiation process.

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