Global campaign demands: ‘Free Otegi, bring Basque prisoners home’

Fermin Muguruza, Martina Anderson and Brian Currin at the campaign launch in Brussels

Fermin Muguruza, Martina Anderson and Brian Currin at the campaign launch in Brussels

An international campaign for the release of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi was launched at a conference in the European Parliament in Brussels on March 24. A statement calling for Otegi’s release was announced at the conference, which has been endorsed by international figures including former Latin American presidents, Nobel Prize winners, political representatives and former political prisoners.

Senator José Pepe Mújica, who was president of Uruguay until his term ended in March; Fernando Lugo, president of Paraguay until he was ousted in an impeachment that has been described as a coup in 2012; and José Manuel Zelaya, former Honduran president who was deposed in a right-wing military coup in 2009, are among the first signatories to the campaign.

The statement has also been signed by Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairéad Maguire. Former leading Black Panther activist and retired professor Angela Davis, Leyla Zana (ex-prisoner and the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish Parliament), Palestinian National Council member Leila Khaled, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and author Tariq Ali have also added their endorsement.

The campaign was formally launched by popular Basque punk musician Fermin Muguruza, and also heard from South African lawyer and conflict resolution expert Brian Currin and Sinn Féin MEP and ex-prisoner Martina Anderson.

As well as calling for the release of Otegi, the campaign calls for an end to the ‘dispersal’ of Basque political prisoners prior to an early-release scheme being established, and for them to be brought to jails closer to their homes – as is required under international human rights law. Under Spain’s dispersion policy, around 500 prisoners are held in jails across the Spanish and French states at distances of up to 1,200 kilometres from their homes and families. A large proportion of these are held in jail for purely political work such as membership of a political party or youth organisation.

The Spanish government responded to the announcement of the international campaign by arresting four people the next morning, March 25, on ‘terrorism’ charges. They were held for two days and then released on bail. Two of those arrested are activists in Etxerat (Home), the prisoners’ relatives association, and the other two are psychologists part of an organisation, Jaiki Hadi, that promotes the health and wellbeing of the prisoners.

One of the Etxerat representatives had been in the European Parliament just weeks ago on March 4-5 to discuss the campaign for an end to dispersal with a range of MEPs from across the political spectrum. The other Etxerat representative had met with president of the Basque Government Iñigo Urkullu last month in his first formal reception for the relatives of prisoners.

‘The leader of the Basque peace process’

The campaign statement says: “Five years ago the Basque independence movement began an unprecedented and far-reaching debate. That debate concluded with an unequivocal commitment to an exclusively peaceful and democratic pursuit of self-determination for the Basque Country. The movement renounced the use of violence and committed to the goal of ending the long and violent conflict by means of dialogue.”

More than any other individual, Otegi is the person most responsible for convincing ETA that its armed campaign needed to end, and for initiating and guiding the broad democratic discussion among pro-independence political activists that reached a consensus firmly in support of this strategy. He has been described by Desmond Tutu as the “leader of the Basque peace process”.

Born into a Euskera (Basque) speaking family in 1958 during the heyday of the Franco dictatorship when speaking Euskera was a crime, Otegi attended underground Basque language schools as a child and became involved in the militant Basque struggle for independence from Spain and France when he was 17. Otegi was jailed in 1989 for involvement in the 1979 ETA kidnapping of Michelin factory director Luis Abaitua during a bitter industrial dispute; Abaitua was released weeks later.

Otegi served his sentence and was released in 1993. This 1979 action was the only armed action he has ever been associated with. Otegi became increasingly involved in political activism and was elected as an MP for the pro-independence left party Herri Batasuna (People’s Unity) in the Basque Autonomous Community in 1995. He was thrust into a critical leadership role in Herri Batasuna when the party’s entire national executive was jailed by the Spanish judiciary in 1997, becoming the party’s key spokesperson. Since this point, Otegi has been acknowledged as the leader of the Basque pro-independence political movement.

But together with hundreds of other pro-independence political activists, Otegi has faced charges and sentences for ‘terrorism’ for purely political work since 1998, when the Spanish government introduced its policy that claimed “everything that surrounds ETA is ETA”. The chief architect of this strategy, Judge Baltasar Garzón, argued that any political party, youth organisation, newspaper or community centre that shared the goal of Basque independence was supposedly a part of ETA.

The two main pieces of legislation drawn up by the Spanish government to prosecute political activists were the 2000 law on ‘glorifying terrorism’ and the 2002 ‘Law on Political Parties’. The Law on Political Parties was explicitly designed to criminalise Batasuna, which at this time was polling between 10 and 18 per cent of the vote in Basque elections. Batasuna was officially outlawed in 2003. Both laws are still in place.

In his December 2008 report, then-UN Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, Martin Scheinin, said the Law on Political Parties 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 an armed group.

Commenting on the law against “glorifying terrorism” in the same report, Professor Scheinin said the law “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”.

Political sentences

Otegi has been brought before the courts a dozen times since 1998, and has been in and out of jail, through the majority of these cases have eventually been dismissed.

Among the blatantly political charges he has been convicted of are:

* In November 2005, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced Otegi to a year in jail for “insulting the king”. This case arose from comments made by Otegi at a 2003 press conference discussing the closing down of the moderate Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria, and the arrest and torture of 13 of its editors and staff by the Guardia Civil. Otegi commented that as the official head of the armed forces, King Juan Carlos was effectively in command of those in the Guardia Civil who had carried out the torture and bore ultimate responsibility.

The Egunkaria case prompted then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven to visit the Basque Country in 2004. He produced a report on Spain in which he condemned the state’s system of incommunicado detention. In 2010, seven years after the closing of the newspaper, the charges against it and its staff and editors were dropped, and in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Spanish government for its refusal to investigate the allegations of torture.

In March 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Spain had infringed Otegi’s right to freedom of expression in this case, and ordered Spain to pay his legal costs and 23,000 euros in damages.

* In April 2006, Otegi was sentenced to 15 months in jail by the Audiencia Nacional (Spanish National Court) for “glorifying terrorism” due to his participation in a December 2003 commemoration of an ETA leader, Jose Miguel Beñarán, or Argala, who was assassinated by a Spanish government death squad in 1978. The commemoration marked the 25th anniversary of Argala’s death. Otegi’s lawyer pointed out that this commemoration was an annual event with many participants but Otegi was singled out for charges based on his participation for political reasons.

* In March 2010, Otegi was sentenced to two years in prison for “glorifying terrorism” for a speech he made in 2005 in which he compared long-term ETA prisoner Jose Maria Sagarduy to Nelson Mandela. Most significantly, part of his sentence was that he was banned from holding public office for 16 years.

Bateragune Five

Otegi has been one of the main participants in all of the attempts to find a political solution to the five-decade long Basque conflict since 1998. In October 2009, key leaders of the abertzale (pro-independence) left, led by Otegi, were preparing a new peace initiative in which they were to call for Basques to commit to using exclusively peaceful and democratic methods in their struggle for Basque independence.

Arnaldo Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi

On 13 October 2009, as they prepared this new peace initiative, 10 central leaders of the political movement were arrested – five of them, including Otegi, in raids on the headquarters of the left-wing, pro-independence trade union confederation LAB. Former LAB Secretary General Rafa Diez was also among those arrested. The case has become known as ‘Bateragune’ (meeting place). Four days after the arrests, 50,000 Basques marched in a demonstration for their release. Five of the 10 were jailed without bail by Judge Garzón for “attempting to reconstitute the leadership of Batasuna”.

Despite the arrests, the peace initiative was announced at a press conference of 100 abertzale left leaders the following month. The initiative has led to developments including the adoption of the proposal by the political movement following widespread discussions and debates that involved more than 10,000 activists; the announcement of a permanent ceasefire by ETA in 2010; the further confirmation of a ‘definitive cessation’ of armed actions by ETA in October 2011, and its move in 2014 to begin the process of disarmament. It has also led to the formation and legal registration of the new pro-independence party Sortu in 2013 that has rejected violence and reached unprecedented levels of popular support in the Basque Country.

In September 2011, Otegi and Diez were sentenced to 10 years jail each, while the three others, Sonia Jacinto, Arkaitz Rodriguez and Miren Zabaleta, received eight years. The Supreme Court later reduced Otegi’s sentence to six and a half years. In July 2012, the Spanish Constitutional Court ratified this sentence in a decision which split the court, with five out of 12 judges dissenting. Otegi’s case is now being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Five years of provocation

At the time of Otegi’s arrest in 2009, a Batasuna spokesperson responded 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.”

The Spanish government’s response to the attempts to build a peace process in the Basque country appears baffling to many international observers.

The arrest of the architects of the new peace initiative was just the first step in more than five years of intensely provocative measures by the Spanish government, which seems determined to avoid a resolution of the conflict at all costs.

In response to the announcement of the peace initiative by 100 leaders of the abertzale left in November 2009, the Guardia Civil carried out a massive series of raids, arresting 40 youth activists alleged to be members of the peaceful political youth organisation Segi, 32 of whom said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The youths were acquitted of all charges in June 2014.

A group of international leaders issued the ‘Declaration of Aiete’ in October 2011 that called on ETA to declare a definitive cessation of armed actions, and urged Madrid and Paris to enter into negotiations on dealing with the consequences of the conflict. Despite ETA’s positive response and commitment to a definitive cessation three days later, both governments have dismissed these international calls for dialogue.

The new pro-independence party Sortu was formed in February 2011 and renounced violence – yet the Spanish government attempted to ban it anyway. After a 15-month legal battle, Sortu was legalised.

In January 2013, a massive demonstration of 115,000 people marched in Donostia/San Sebastian for a peaceful resolution and the repatriation of Basque prisoners. The rally was organised by broad new civil society organisation Herrira (Return Home), which had been founded the previous year to build a public campaign for the end of dispersal. On September 30 that year, the Spanish security forces launched a major raid against Herrira, arresting 18 activists who were charged with terrorism offences, and shutting down the organisation.

In December 2013, the Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) confirmed its support for a peace process and publicly committed to aiming for repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with Spanish legal framework. This was the first time pro-independence prisoners have acknowledged the authority of the Spanish judicial system. Madrid responded weeks later in January 2014 by arresting and jailing eight mediators of the EPPK, including two  lawyers, and by attempting to ban the annual demonstration in favour of prisoners’ rights – this time being organised by Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), the organisation established after the banning of Herrira.

Basque society united to defy the ban, and the LAB union, Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Sortu called a new rally for ‘Human Rights, Peace, Resolution’ that drew 130,000 people onto the streets of Bilbao on January 11, 2014. It was the largest demonstration ever to take place in the history of the Basque Country and the first time since 1998 that the PNV and pro-independence left held such a joint rally.

The following month, February 2014, a group of international conflict resolution experts, the International Verification Commission, confirmed at a press conference in Bilbao that ETA has begun the process of putting its weapons beyond operational use. The Spanish government responded by claiming the IVC are “working for ETA”, and summoned the six IVC members to appear before the Audiencia Nacional for questioning.

80,000 march in Bilbao in Sare rally for prisoners' rights in January 2015

80,000 march in Bilbao in Sare rally for prisoners’ rights in January 2015

When more than 80,000 people marched again on January 10 this year in favour of the repatriation of prisoners – organised by yet another new broad campaigning organisation, Sare (Network), established after the banning of Tantaz Tanta – the Spanish government responded two days later on January 12 by arresting 16 people. Twelve were lawyers for the prisoners and four were alleged to be members of banned prisoners’ solidarity organisation ‘Herrira’.

Three of the lawyers were arrested in Madrid as they were due in court on the first day of a trial of 35 activists alleged to have been members of Batasuna and other banned left parties. Several are current or former elected representatives, including Sortu spokesperson Pernando Barrena, but the prosecution is seeking between seven and 10 years jail and 10 years’ disqualification from public office. The Guardia Civil also raided the LAB headquarters and seized the 90,000 euros that had been donated to Sare collection bags by participants in the prisoners’ rights rally. More than 33,000 Basques protested against the lawyers’ arrests in Donostia/San Sebastian on January 17.

Finally, as outlined above, in response to the launch of the new international campaign, ‘Free Otegi; Bring Basque prisoners home’ in Brussels on March 24, the Spanish government arrested four prominent prisoners’ rights activists, this time targeting the prisoners’ relatives association.

A convenient conflict?

This approach by the Spanish government was described in the Financial Times in March last year as “bizarre” by Jonathan Powell, who was chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process.

But this approach becomes more understandable when we consider the words of the former Ulster Unionist leader, the late Jim Molyneaux, in relation to the Irish conflict. He described the IRA ceasefire of 1994 as “the most destabilising event since partition”.

It has become abundantly clear that Madrid is very comfortable with a low-intensity conflict in the Basque Country, which can be used to justify its array of repressive legislation and attacks on rights to freedom of expression and to politically organise across the entire Spanish state. In the context of constitutional threats such as the increasing power of the pro-independence political movement in the Basque Country, the rising movement for recognition of a referendum on independence in Catalonia, and the deep opposition to austerity among Spanish society which is shaking the two-party system that has been in place since the 1980s, the prospect of keeping the Basque conflict alive is understandably appealing for the Spanish government.

In an interview from jail with Mexico’s La Jornada, Otegi said in December 2013: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for Spain, 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.”

‘First you go to prison, then you become President’

The international statement released at the campaign launch in Brussels says: “We call for the immediate release of Arnaldo Otegi, a man who took risks for peace and democracy and who tirelessly persuaded many others to believe in the power of the word alone as the mean of resolving this conflict. His release and the end of the dispersal policy, prior to an agreed early release process, are necessary steps to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.”

Speaking at the launch, Basque musician Fermin Muguruza said: “Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘In my country, first you go to prison, then you become president’. We hope that Otegi can repeat those words.”

Otegi is due to be released in April next year – but he has been banned from holding political office for more than a decade beyond that. At the last elections in the Basque Autonomous Community held in October 2012, the pro-independence left coalition EH Bildu won 25% of the vote, coming second behind the conservative Basque Nationalist Party. Many commentators speculated that had the high-profile and popular Otegi been free to participate as the candidate for Lehendakari (Basque president), EH Bildu would have won the election.

The popularity of the pro-independence left has continued to rise, and EH Bildu topped the poll in the European elections in May last year.

Otegi’s ongoing imprisonment is not only an infringement on his individual human rights – it is depriving the Basque movement for a peaceful resolution to the conflict of its most articulate proponent, and it is disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of Basques who would elect him as President of the Basque Autonomous Community of their right to choose who leads their government.

For more information on the campaign and a full list of signatories, see

Basque Country: Dealing with the consequences of the conflict

From left: Brian Currin, Mark Demesmaeker MEP, and Frieda Brepoeles

From left: Brian Currin, Mark Demesmaeker MEP, and Frieda Brepoeles

South African lawyer and conflict resolution expert Brian Currin was the main speaker at a conference held in the European Parliament in Brussels on 24 March to mark five years since the ‘Brussels Declaration’ was made in support of building a peace process in the Basque Country.

The conference was organised by the Basque Friendship Group, which includes MEPs from across the political spectrum in the European Parliament, and was introduced by New Flemish Alliance representatives Mark Demesmaeker MEP and former MEP Frieda Brepoeles.

The event ended with the launch of an international campaign for the release of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi and for the repatriation of Basque prisoners to the Basque Country.

In her opening remarks, Brepoeles described the Brussels Declaration, a statement made by a group of 21 international conflict resolution leaders including several Nobel Prize winners, as “an indisputably pivotal moment”.

“From that point, the international community organised to take initiatives in support of the peace process. Among the Basque people, the belief in a durable peace grew. Madrid appears to fear an outbreak of peace. But pessimism, for us, is not an option,” she said.

Demesmaeker outlined his view that the role of the European Union in the final resolution of the long-running Basque conflict was to pressure Spain and France to end the current stalemate in what has been, to date, a one-sided peace process.

Brussels Declaration

Brian Currin was the driving force behind the Brussels Declaration in March 2010. He was then instrumental in establishing the International Contact Group – a group of high-profile conflict resolution experts from around the world – in November that year in order to help promote a peace process in the Basque Country.

Speaking at the conference to mark five years since the Brussels Declaration, Currin said: “The Brussels Declaration of March 2010 was a challenge to ETA – it called on ETA to declare a permanent and verifiable ceasefire.

“In January 2011, ETA responded positively and announced just that – a permanent and verifiable ceasefire. We, the International Contact Group, assumed that the Spanish and French governments would be part of any verification body. It was incomprehensible to us that they would choose not to be part of such a process.

“We established an independent international verification body of conflict resolution experts, the International Verification Commission (IVC), and in the process we approached Madrid and Paris. They didn’t respond. To this date we have had no support for the disarmament process from either government.”

A definitive end to armed activity

The next milestone in the current peace process, Currin told the conference, was Declaration of Aiete, made on 17 October 2011.

The Declaration consisted of 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. three days later, ETA announced a “definitive cessation” of armed activity.

Aiete signatories included former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland, former French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe and former Chief of Staff to British PM Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell. It was soon endorsed by Blair and former US President Jimmy Carter.

“The key goal of the Aiete Declaration, in addition to obtaining a verifiable commitment to the definitive end of armed activity from ETA, was for the Spanish and French governments to enter dialogue with ETA – exclusively on dealing with the consequences of the conflict,” Currin explained.

“I stress this word, exclusively – the call was not for the Spanish and French governments to enter into political talks about the future of the Basque Country, the constitution, or any issue other than dealing with the key consequences of the conflict that lasted for five decades.

Addressing the needs of victims

“There are three main consequences that I believe need to be dealt with in order to build a lasting peace in the Basque Country – victims, disarmament and prisoners.

“Notwithstanding the failure of the two governments to move on the issue of disarmament or prisoners, a great deal of excellent work has continued in the Basque Country in recent years on the sensitive and moving issue of victims.

“Basque organisations and the Basque Government [the government of the Basque Autonomous Community] have worked tirelessly to try to move this forward. So a lot of work on the issues of victims and reconciliation is taking place – but it needs institutional support from the Spanish and French governments.”

Refusal to engage in disarmament process ‘incomprehensible’

“ETA has been unequivocal in putting its arms beyond use,” Currin said.

“It has made commitments and kept them, and it has put a quantity of its weapons beyond use through the IVC in February last year.”

For their efforts, the IVC members were summoned to appear before the special Spanish court, the Audiencia Nacional, for questioning.

“For this process to be carried out properly, it needs the cooperation of the Spanish government. It needs to involve official security personnel,” he said.

“Madrid’s approach has been to say, ‘hand over the weapons to us’. But it’s not that simple. These arms may be associated with individuals who are still in exile or being sought by Spanish authorities who would be targeted. What the Spanish government is asking for amounts to a surrender in the eyes of ETA.

“But the issue must be dealt with, and it cannot be dealt with by the international community alone. The fact is there are arms in caches in Spain and France and they need to be identified and destroyed. International actors, were they to enter the Spanish state and carry this out, would be engaging in a major crime under Spanish law.

“Can you imagine if, anywhere else in the world, a group that had been engaged in an armed campaign against the State for decades announced that it wanted to disarm, and that government refused to engage with a disarmament process?

“It would be considered to be outrageous. A solution to this stalemate needs to be found, and key to this will be the international community – particularly the EU – putting pressure on Spain and France to engage positively in decommissioning.”

Political prisoners are the key to achieving peace

Currin said that in his experience, “in every peace process, resolving the status of politically motivated prisoners is the key”.

“It cannot be overstated. This has been true for all the peace processes I have been involved in, in the Basque Country, in Northern Ireland and in South Africa.

“When I began working in the Irish peace process in the 1990s, I was engaging with both republicans and loyalists on the issue of prisoners. Soon, the British government asked me to chair their prisoner early release commission – something that showed significant political maturity on their part.

“The issue of political prisoners, again, needs to be dealt with institutionally. Before we even begin addressing the issue of early release, we need to insist that the exceptional punitive measures used against Basque prisoners come to an end.

“The words the Spanish government is asking Basque prisoners to say in order to end the exceptional measures used against them are deliberately designed to ensure the prisoners cannot say them. They’re being asked to reject everything they’ve been involved in, their beliefs and their actions. And the prisoners are not prepared to do that.”

Dispersal – an inhumane, colonial-era penal policy

Currin then spoke about his background as a human rights lawyer, and then a human rights activist in South Africa in the 1980s. Ten years later he became involved in the conflict resolution processes in South Africa and Ireland.

“But now,” he said, “I am going to be an activist again for the next five minutes to speak about an issue that I feel very strongly about, and that is the dispersal of Basque prisoners.

“Dispersal is a rather innocuous word. Is it the right word to use in this context, to convey the consequences of the policy? I don’t think it is, when I think about the policy of dispersal and what it does.

“Today around 500 prisoners are ‘dispersed’ hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away from their homes and their families. Think for a moment about the impact this has on these families – the husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and close friends of these prisoners.

“Every weekend, you drive for hours and hours; maybe it will take you 10 hours to get to the jail. You have a 40-minute visit in the jail with your relative and then you drive back. Think of the cost in terms of time and finances, and think of the emotional distress this would result in. You would almost want to forget this family member. But you can’t, and you won’t. And you will make the journey each weekend.

“If we consider that there are 500 prisoners held under this policy, I would estimate that this affects around 50,000 people in the small Basque community – around 10 people per prisoner if you take into account siblings and grandparents.

Europe has a responsibility to help break this deadlock

“And it is completely illegal. It is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Spanish government’s own Constitution. It is absolutely incredible that this is happening right here in the centre of ‘civilised’ Western Europe.

“It reminds me of the colonial days when prisoners were sent to faraway islands to make sure they lost touch with their families and communities as a punitive measure. It was a policy carried out by Spain, France, Britain, the Netherlands and other European colonial powers.

“This is happening today in Spain and France when there is no threat of violence whatsoever from ETA. What can justify the dispersal of prisoners in this way, other than simply revenge and spite?

“It is utterly inhumane and it is affecting 50,000 people in the Basque Country. We should not call this dispersal, we should call it what it really is – 21st century Spanish colonial penal policy for the destruction of Basque families. As we sit here now, it is destroying families.

“There must be a way in which the European institutions can play a role in facilitating the end of the mistreatment of Basque prisoners, and the decommissioning of ETA’s arms, and to break through the current deadlock caused by the failure of the Spanish and French governments to engage.

“I cannot accept that there is not a way for these institutions to assist this process and put this conflict in the past for good. That is our challenge – to find a way.”