Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

Published on on 11 March, 2014

The Spanish government’s response to the move by armed Basque pro-independence organisation ETA to put its weapons beyond use has demonstrated beyond doubt that it favours the continuation of conflict over peace. On 21 February, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) released a video showing two of its members meeting with representatives of the International Verification Commission (IVC) who were inspecting a quantity of weapons that had been put beyond operational use.

The IVC held a press conference in Bilbao in the Basque Country the same day, at which spokesperson Ram Manikkalingam said: “The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible.” The Amsterdam-based IVC is not recognised by the Spanish government. It consists of six high-profile international experts in conflict resolution, and was formed in 2011 with the purpose of monitoring and verifying ETA’s permanent ceasefire. As well as Sri Lankan Manikkalingam, who has worked in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Ireland, the IVC also includes South Africa’s former deputy defence minister Ronnie Kasrils and former political director of the Northern Ireland Office Chris Maccabe.

The Spanish government’s response to the decommissioning move was to issue subpoenas to the members of the IVC for interrogation, summoning them to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s political court in Madrid, for interrogation. There is still a possibility that the IVC members may be charged with “assisting a terrorist organisation”. Chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process, Jonathan Powell, wrote in the Financial Times on March 4 that the decommissioning move “appears to be unalloyed good news. But the reaction in Spain has been bizarre.” Powell urged the Spanish and French governments to legislate in order to make witnessing the decommissioning process legal. ETA published a statement on 1 March declaring it had begun the process of putting its entire arsenal beyond use.

The other international organisation founded to assist the development of a Basque peace process is the International Contact Group led by South African lawyer Brian Currin, which aims to facilitate dialogue between the main actors. While attending a peace conference in Baiona in the northern Basque Country (within the French state) on 28 February, Currin and other members of the ICG were summoned to Paris by a French court to face questioning over their contacts with ETA.

Four decades of conflict

ETA was formed by a group of Basque students in 1959 under the Franco dictatorship as a response to the regime’s attempt to eradicate the ancient Basque language and culture; the students believed that only an independent state could ensure the survival of the Basque nation. After launching its armed campaign against the Spanish military and the paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, in 1968, ETA played a leading role in the anti-Franco resistance.

Its campaign for independence continued following the dictator’s death in 1975 as Spain’s ‘transition to democracy’ failed to allow the Basque people to determine their own political and constitutional arrangements. Only a minority of Basques voted in favour of the 1978 Constitution, which commits the armed forces to ensure the territorial integrity of the Spanish state. The continuing repression of both ETA and the broader Basque pro-independence movement – in particular, the widely documented use of torture by the security forces – after the transition has also fuelled the continuation of the conflict.

ETA attacks have killed 829 people since 1968, and Basque nationalists estimate victims of state violence number 475. The Euskal Memoria Foundation has documented 9,600 cases of torture of Basque prisoners over the past five decades. Attempts to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict began in the late 1980s. Basque ceasefires and negotiations in 1998 and 2006 broke down and armed actions resumed, but the desire for a negotiated solution has steadily grown among the Basque population.

In 1998, fearful of the closer relationship between the abertzale (patriotic) left and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Spanish judiciary initiated a criminalisation strategy that claimed ‘everything that surrounds ETA is ETA’ – that is, any cultural organisation, political party or media outlet that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA. Mass trials against political activists began and have continued ever since, while newspapers were shut down and political parties including Batasuna were banned following the Law of Political Parties in 2002, a law which insists all parties must denounce anti-state violence or be banned. Former UN Special Rapportuer Martin Scheinin said in a UN report in December 2008 that this 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.

The result has been a decade of disenfranchisement for supporters of the abertzale left. A new abertzale left party, Sortu, was founded in February 2011 and rejected violence, but the Spanish Supreme Court still refused to allow it to be legally registered. A challenge in the Constitutional Court, and international pressure on Madrid, resulted in Sortu being legalised conditionally in June 2012. The abertzale left, running in electoral coalitions Bildu and Amaiur in 2011 and 2012, won between 22 and 26% of the vote in the Basque Country, the largest support it has ever achieved.

Unilateralism and provocation

The disarmament move has been the latest in a series of unilateral acts by ETA taken since 2009 that aims to bring about the demilitarisation of the Basque political conflict with Spain and France, and initiate a process of conflict resolution that deals comprehensively with the consequences of the conflict, including disarmament, meeting the needs of victims, ending the exceptional measures used Basque political prisoners, and resolving the status of exiles.

Not only has there been no concessions, but at each stage since the beginning of the peace initiative by the abertzale left in 2009, the Spanish government has reacted with repressive measures that have appeared at times to be unbelievably provocative. The abertzale left has responded to the provocation with an exceptional degree of cohesion, unity and discipline.

On 13 October 2009, as the Abertzale Left leadership met to discuss activating the initiative that would lead to ETA’s permanent ceasefire, 10 leading activists were arrested – five of them in a police raid on the headquarters of the LAB trade union in Donostia/San Sebastian. Pro-independence political leader Arnaldo Otegi, LAB former general secretary Rafa Diez and three others were jailed by Judge Baltasar Garzon for at least six years on charges of attempting to reconstitute the leadership of banned political party Batasuna “on the orders of ETA”. Batasuna released a statement 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.”


Basques and Australian supporters at Sydney Opera House in January 2014. The banner reads, “Basque prisoners and exiles, home”


The initiative – the announcement that a strategic debate was to be launched across the movement about a new ceasefire and peace process – took place despite the arrests at a press conference by more than 100 leading members of the Abertzale Left on 14 November 2009 in Altsasu. The Spanish government responded by launching massive raids across the Basque Country 10 days later, arresting 40 alleged members of political youth organisation Segi, 32 of whom later said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The trial of the youth activists on terrorism charges began in October 2013 and is ongoing.

ETA announced an end to offensive actions in 2010 as the strategic debate about an alternative strategy for achieving independence took place across the broader movement. On 17 October 2011 several international figures took part in an International Peace Conference, issuing the Declaration of Aiete – five recommendations that called on ETA to implement a definitive cessation of armed activity and request negotiations with the Spanish and French governments; and urged the governments to respond positively to such a request and put in place a process of addressing the consequences of the conflict.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, former Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern, Powell, former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland and former French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe issued the declaration, which was endorsed by former US President Jimmy Carter and former British PM Tony Blair. The Declaration of Aiete was later endorsed by many leading Latin American political figures in Mexico in October 2013, including 13 former presidents. Lula de Silva became the latest international figure to endorse Aiete following the IVC announcement in February.

ETA responded to the Declaration of Aiete three days later by declaring a “definitive cessation” of armed actions. The groundswell of support among Basque society for an end to the conflict was demonstrated a few months later in January 2012 when around 100,000 people marched in a demonstration for the repatriation of the Basque prisoners. The number of Basque political prisoners – which include ETA activists but also hundreds of political and cultural activists, trade unionists and journalists as a result of the criminalisation policy – peaked at over 750 in 2010, the highest number since Franco’s death.

Prisoners – key to peace

In the wake of the massive show of support for prisoners’ rights in January 2012, a broad, legally registered, alliance formed the next month called Herrira (Return Home) to campaign for an end to the dispersal policy, an end to the Parot Doctrine and for the release of the seriously ill prisoners. Herrira organised an even bigger demonstration in favour of prisoners’ rights in Donostia in January 2013, which mobilised 115,000 people.

The Spanish government introduced its ‘dispersal’ policy in 1989 whereby it aims to isolate and demoralise Basque prisoners by transferring them to prisons across the state, as far from home as possible. It is a policy that punishes both prisoners and their families and has been condemned by the UN and human rights organisations. The Parot Doctrine introduced in 2006, applied retroactively, meant remission for Basque political prisoners jailed before the introduction of the current penal code in 1995 could be granted on prisoners’ original full sentences instead of the 30-year maximum term, effectively imposing life sentences. It had been applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when it was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them. There are also 15 terminally or chronically ill prisoners who are denied the medical care they require in jail. After the release of the Parot prisoners, there are currently 521 Basque prisoners held in 82 jails across the Spanish and French states, on average 600kms from their homes.

Just weeks before the ECHR ruling against the Parot Doctrine (which was widely expected to find in favour of the prisoners) the Spanish government struck pre-emptively by launching a major raid against Herrira on 30 September 2013, arresting 18 activists who were charged with terrorism offences and shutting down the organisation.

The EPPK (Basque Political Prisoners Collective) released a statement on 28 December 2013 confirming its support for a peace process, recognising the suffering caused by the conflict, and committing for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework. Spain responded in on 8 January this year by arresting and jailing eight mediators of the EPPK, including two lawyers, on the grounds that the EPPK was an “operational arm of ETA”.

A new organisation, Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), which was established after Herrira was shut down, planned to hold a march for prisoners’ rights in Bilbao in January but the demonstration was banned by Judge Eloy Velasco from the Audiencia Nacional on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira. Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march but Sortu and the LAB joined with the PNV and its affiliated union the ELA to call for a new march on 11 January, which drew 130,000 people out on to the streets of Bilbao in the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, under the slogan ‘Human Rights, Resolution, Peace’. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held such a joint demonstration.

The Spanish government’s response to the IVC press conference demonstrates its growing sense of panic at ETA’s decision to exit the stage. In an interview from jail on 18 December with Mexico’s La Jornada, Arnaldo Otegi said: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for it, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.” The process could be immediately deepened and made irreversible by the repatriation of the prisoners to the Basque Country; yet instead it is likely that the Spanish government will step up its attempts to ban Sortu once again. Yet the unique opportunity to bring a four-decade armed conflict to an end has not gone unnoticed internationally, and Madrid’s active obstructionism to ETA decommissioning can be seen clearly as the deeply cynical move it is. Its stance is becoming increasingly hard to justify on the international stage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s