Gernika: The beginning of aerial terror

Gernika Belfast

A mural of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in Belfast

The following excerpt on the 1937 attack on the Basque village of Gernika is taken from an incomplete history piece on the Basque Country, from a chapter on the Second Republic and civil war. Tomorrow (April 26) is the 80th anniversary of the bombardment.

In early 1937, with Madrid still putting up a stiff resistance, Franco set his sights upon Bilbo with the aim of capturing the city’s iron ore and heavy industry to support his war effort. The Francoists quickly planned a northern offensive to be led by General Emilio Mola, who issued an ultimatum on 31 March in broadcast and printed leaflets dropped on Bizkaian towns saying: “If submission is not immediate, I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war. I have the means to do so.” Most of the infantry on Franco’s side were raised from Nafarroa. The 50,000 heavily armed troops in four Nafarroan brigades were backed up by two Italian divisions, the Spanish Air Force, the Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe. Mola had 120 aircraft and 45 pieces of artillery at his disposal. The Republican Army in the North had almost as many troops but far less firepower, half the artillery and just 25 ineffective aircraft. The offensive began with an act of brutality when the village of Durango – not on the front line and undefended – was bombarded for four days by the Luftwaffe, with 248 civilians killed. Republican positions were falling fast and on 20 April 1937 a new Francoist offensive began in Bizkaia.

Gernika has long had a sacred status among Basques as the site of the ancient Basque parliament of Bizkaia, the Casa de Juntas, and of the legendary Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika), an oak tree that has been a symbol of Basque sovereignty and the rights of the Basque people for close to a thousand years. In 1937 the town had a population of around 7,000 people, and Monday 26 April was a busy market day in the town centre. At 4.40pm the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria launched an aerial bombardment of the town that lasted for three hours, with waves of planes hitting the town centre every 20 minutes with high explosives and incendiary bombs of up to 1000lbs. each. Those who tried to run from the town or hide in the fields were machine-gunned. At 7.45pm, after the last planes had dropped their bombs, the centre of the town was destroyed. The assault killed 1,654 of the town’s 7,000 inhabitants. Gernika was 30 kilometres from the front. The Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika had incredibly survived untouched.

A report by British journalist George Steer, war correspondent for the London Times, was published in the Times and the New York Times on 28 April. Steer had rushed to the town the evening of the attack to interview survivors and witness the devastation firsthand, and reported: “The most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.”  His report from Gernika was all the more significant because Franco’s forces claimed the Basques had burned the town themselves as a propaganda stunt; then they claimed the Communists had bombed it. Franco denied that German forces were even participating in Spain’s Civil War. In response to the Nationalist propaganda, Basque lehendakari (president) José Antonio Aguirre made a public declaration : “I maintain firmly before God and History, who will judge us, that during three and a half hours German planes have bombarded the defenceless civilian population of the historic town of Gernika, pursuing women and children with machine-guns, and reducing the town itself to ashes. I ask the civilized world whether it can permit the extermination of a people who have always deemed it their duty to defend their liberty as well as the ideal of self-government which Gernika, with its thousand-year-old Tree, has symbolized throughout the centuries.” Franco replied: “Aguirre lies. We have respected Gernika, just as we respect all that is Spanish.” Mola was more forthright, saying: “It is necessary to destroy the capital of a perverted people who dare to oppose the irresistible cause of the national idea.”

Basque priest Father Alberto Onaindia witnessed the carnage in Gernika and wrote in desperation to the Primate of Spain, Cardinal Gomá: “I have just arrived from Bilbao with my soul destroyed after having witnessed the horrific crime that has been perpetrated against the peaceful town of Guernica… Senor Cardinal, for dignity, for the honour of the gospel, for Christ’s infinite pity, such a horrendous, unprecedented, apocalyptic, Dantesque crime cannot be committed.” He begged the Cardinal to intervene to sure the Francoists’ threat – that Bilbo was next – was not implemented. Gomá responded by insisting that Bilbo must surrender. Referring to the Basque Nationalist Party’s (PNV) loyalty to the Republic, he added: “Peoples pay for their pacts with evil and for their perverse wickedness in sticking to them.” Francoist forces viewed the scene a few days later, and a Carlist soldier reportedly asked a senior officer in Mola’s staff: “Was it necessary to do this?” The lieutenant colonel replied that it had to be done in all of Bizkaia and Catalunya. In 1970  PNV member Joseba Elosegi, one of the Basque soldiers from the Battalion Saseta which had withdrawn to Gernika for a period of recuperation and was present on the day of the bombing, carried out an act of self-immolation in a protest against Franco in Donostia, shouting “Gora Euskadi Askatuta!” (Long live the free Basque country!). Elosegi was badly burned but survived and described his protest as the desperate act of a man who had “obsessively remembered” for more than three decades the scenes he witnessed at Gernika.

Steer immediately understood the significance of the attack on Gernika, and in his Times article he wrote:  “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” His report was reprinted in the French communist newspaper L’Humanité on 29 April, where Pablo Picasso read it. The artist captured the international outrage over the attack in his world-renowned painting. He had been commissioned earlier that year by the Spanish Republican government to paint a mural for the Spanish government building at the World Fair in Paris. On 1 May 1937, he dropped his original plan and produced his most famous work, Guernica, instead.

Ongi etorri, Arnaldo Otegi!

Sinn Féin welcomes release of Basque pro-independence leader

Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi leaving prison this morning, 01/03/16

Sinn Féin representatives have warmly welcomed the release of Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi from prison in Logroño this morning after six and a half years.

Otegi’s release has also been welcomed by Spanish left parties Podemos and Izquierda Unida, as well as Catalan pro-independence forces Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC).

Pat Sheehan, Sinn Féin MLA, said that the release of Otegi is an opportunity to advance the peace process in the Basque country.

“Arnaldo Otegi was one of the main architects of the peace strategy developed by the Basque pro-independence movement and should never have been imprisoned,” he said.

MEP Martina Anderson added her congratulations, saying: “I am delighted that today Arnaldo Otegi is being welcomed home by his family and community, and I send warm congratulations to him from Sinn Féin.

“We also welcome the news that Arnaldo Otegi has confirmed he will take part in internal party elections later this month seeking to stand as a candidate for EH Bildu.

“But I’m appalled that he received this sentence in the first place. The fact that Otegi was jailed for more than six years solely for his ideas and political activism is an indictment of the Spanish authorities.”

Since the 1990s, Arnaldo Otegi has been acknowledged as the leader of the Basque pro-independence political movement – and he has also faced unrelenting political persecution by Spanish authorities. Already the Spanish authorities have sought to restrict rallies welcoming Otegi’s release from prison.

Among the political charges that have been brought against him include being sentenced to jail in 2006 for participating in a commemoration marking the murder of an ETA leader by a Spanish death squad in 1978, and being jailed again in 2010 for comparing a long-term ETA prisoner to Nelson Mandela.

In 2005 Otegi was sentenced for ‘insulting the king’ after he commented at a press conference held on the torture of Basque journalists that the King bore ultimate responsibility for this torture as the official head of the armed forces. In March 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Spain had infringed Otegi’s right to freedom of expression in this case.

In October 2009, 10 central leaders of the Basque pro-independence movement including Otegi were arrested as they met to discuss a new peace initiative, and five of them were jailed. Despite such provocation, this peace initiative has led to the permanent ETA ceasefire of 2011 and its move in 2014 to begin the process of disarmament. It has also led to the legal registration of new pro-independence party Sortu in 2013, which has rejected violence and reached unprecedented levels of popular support in the Basque Country.

Martina Anderson spoke at the launch last March of the international campaign to free Otegi, which was endorsed by several former Latin American presidents, and Nobel Prize winner Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, among many others.

“As well as being acknowledged as the leader of the Basque pro-independence movement, Otegi is also indisputably the leader of the Basque peace process, and that is why he was jailed in 2011,” she said.

“I warmly welcome the release of Arnaldo Otegi and offer him our full support in his efforts to develop the Basque peace process. The Spanish government should finally engage with this process. It should release all seriously ill prisoners and those who have been jailed for purely political work, and immediately repatriate all Basque prisoners to prisons within the Basque Country as the first step towards an early-release programme.”

Sheehan added: “Sinn Féin are convinced the release of Arnaldo Otegi will invigorate efforts to create a lasting peace and self-determination for the Basque people, and we will continue to provide assistance in bringing that about.”

Background: https://emmaclancy.com/2015/03/28/global-campaign-demands-free-otegi-bring-basque-prisoners-home/

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 freeotegi.com.

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.”

Prisoners and peace-making in the Basque Country

The children of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi in Belfast

The children of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi in Belfast

In the Basque city of Bilbao tonight, up to 100,000 people will march in a silent demonstration for the repatriation of hundreds of Basque political prisoners. Under the Spanish government’s policy of ‘dispersion’, 463 Basque prisoners are being held in more than 70 jails across the Spanish and French states at distances of up to 1,200km from home.

The policy has violated the human rights of thousands of Basque prisoners since its introduction in 1989 but is viewed by the overwhelming majority of Basque society as especially repugnant today, following the announcement by ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) of a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and its subsequent disarmament moves last year.

Those who will march this evening are not demanding amnesty or special treatment for the prisoners – they are calling for an end to the exceptional measures used by the Spanish government to isolate and demoralise Basque political prisoners, and to punish their families and broader Basque society.

The demonstration has been called by ‘Sare’ (Network), a broad-based civil society organisation launched last year with the goals of building a mass campaign for the resolution of the status of Basque prisoners and exiles.

Jailed for opinions and activism

The prisoners have all been labelled as terrorists by the Spanish government and judiciary. Some of the prisoners have been convicted of membership of ETA or ETA activities. Many others have been convicted of membership of political parties or organisations that have never been associated with the use of violence. Some have been convicted of terrorism for minor acts of sabotage during street protests, and still others have been jailed for expressing political opinions. Journalists, students, youth activists and lawyers are among the prisoners.

Since 1998, the Spanish judiciary has implemented a criminalisation strategy that claimed ‘everything that surrounds ETA is ETA’. Any political party, newspaper or cultural organisation that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA.

As well as the Law of Political Parties, which criminalised membership in Batasuna and other non-violent political organisations in 2002, the law against “glorifying terrorism” has been used to jail journalists, editors, and elected political representatives. Over the past year this law has led to terrorism charges against dozens of youths for their social media posts, including, for example, a post of a map of the Basque Country with the word ‘Independence’ on it.

Exceptional measures

In February last year a 36-year-old man, Arkaitz Bellón, died in a jail in Andalusia.  His experience of the Spanish justice system was unfortunately typical of Basque prisoners and involved harsh sentencing, beatings in jail, repeated transfers and dispersion.

Arkaitz died more than 1,200km from his home. He had been jailed for “terrorism” for 13 years for his involvement in street disturbances and was just a few months away from completing his sentence. He had reported being beaten by guards in the prisons he was previously held in, in Sevilla in 2013, Puerto III in 2010 and Algeciras in 2008.

Arkaitz Bellón

Arkaitz Bellón

His death was caused by a pulmonary edema, and he was the third Basque prisoner to die of illness in jail in the space of one year. If Arkaitz had been an ordinary prisoner he would have qualified for early release under Spanish law as he had served more than three-quarters of his sentence. But refusing to apply this law is another one of the exceptional measures used by the Spanish government against Basque prisoners.

Refusing to release seriously ill prisoners on parole is yet another exceptional measure used against Basque prisoners. According to Etxerat (Home), the prisoners’ relatives association, there are currently nine prisoners in jail who are suffering from serious and incurable illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and cancer. Ordinary prisoners receive this right under Spanish law, and it is enshrined in two binding United Nations human rights conventions, which Spain is a signatory to. Repeated transfers, mistreatment, beatings and solitary isolation are also commonly used against Basque prisoners.

The policy of dispersion was introduced by the Spanish government as a hardline punitive measure following the failure of the first negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government held in Algeria in 1989.

International human rights organisations and the UN have long been calling on the Spanish government to end the policy. It contradicts a UN resolution (‘Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment’) adopted in 1988 that states: “If a detained or imprisoned person so requests, he shall if possible be kept in a place of detention or imprisonment reasonably near his usual place of residence.” The principle is aimed at defending the right of prisoners to maintain their family connections, and their connections with trusted legal representatives and physicians.

Dispersion not only infringes the right of prisoners to maintain their family ties; it punishes the families themselves, who are forced to make round trips of, on average, 1,400km every weekend to visit their relatives at an average expense of €20,000 per year. Etxerat has recorded the number of traffic accidents relatives have suffered in these trips – more than 400 since the introduction of the policy. Sixteen relatives of prisoners have been killed in such accidents.

Extending prisoners’ sentences

A punitive measure against Basque prisoners known as the Parot Doctrine was introduced in 2006, but has now been struck down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The doctrine, which was 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. This effectively imposed life sentences. Parot was applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when the ECHR ruled it was a human rights violation on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them.

However, the Spanish government is now pursuing another legally dubious path in an attempt to extend the sentences of Basque prisoners. A European Union Council Framework Decision adopted in November 2008 (2008/909/JHA), regarding the principle of “mutual recognition” of judgments and sentences among EU member states, means that Basque prisoners who have served time in French prisons should have these years counted as part of their total time served when they are transferred to the Spanish state.

The Council Framework Decision had not been codified in legislation by the Spanish parliament, but Spanish courts applied it and discounted years spent in French jails for transferred Basque prisoners. The conservative People’s Party (PP) government has now legislated for its own interpretation of the Council Framework Decision, stating that it is not to be applied to prisoners sentenced after August 2010. This arbitrary date has nothing to do with the framework decision, which did not include any such limitation.

Guardia Civil arrests a Basque woman in 2009, accused of membership of non-violent youth organisation Segi

This has caused confusion as to whether the EU decision or the Spanish interpretation should be followed, and prisoners have appealed its application. But appeals heard in the Supreme Court resulted in opposing decisions. The Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court was then convened on 16 December 2014 to hear an appeal.

On 19 December 2014, 13 of the 18 Supreme Court magistrates publicly criticised what they said was an attempt by the Executive to interfere with the judiciary. Officials from the prosecutor’s office were pressuring the Court to disregard the EU decision. The Supreme Court decision has now been postponed until 13 January. If the government pressure succeeds, 50 Basque prisoners could have their sentences illegally extended.

Prisoners’ relatives association Etxerat said in December 2014 that it fears a massive transfer of prisoners from the French to the Spanish state is being planned under the Framework Decision, and that Spain will use the transfer to move these prisoners even further from home, including to prisons as far away as Africa.

Spain changes the rules

The Spanish government is in the contradictory position of trying to deny the political dimension of the conflict by insisting the Basque prisoners are common criminals and not political prisoners, while at the same time singling these prisoners out for special punitive treatment.

For 26 years, successive Spanish governments have insisted that in order for a prisoner to achieve an end to the use of punitive exceptional measures, he or she must individually renounce the use of violence and acknowledge the suffering caused by ETA. The Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) has historically resisted meeting these conditions.

On 28 December 2013, the EPPK released a statement in which it confirmed its support for the ETA ceasefire and the development of a peace process. It recognised the suffering caused by the conflict, and committed for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework. In essence, it meant Basque prisoners collectively accepted the legitimacy of the Spanish justice system for the first time.

Characteristically, Spain responded less than two weeks later by arresting and jailing eight EPPK mediators, including two lawyers, on 8 January 2014. They claimed the EPPK, and therefore its mediators, was an “operational arm of ETA”.

In March 2014, in accordance with the EPPK announcement, a number of prisoners began individually engaging with the legal system to fulfil requirements and request transfer to Zaballa jail in the Basque province of Alava. Prisoners with serious and chronic illnesses, and those over 70, filed requests asking for parole or house arrest.

By July 2014, every single one of more than 65 requests for transfer or parole had been rejected. The rejections claimed the fact the prisoners had met all of the previously stipulated conditions wasn’t good enough, as the members of the collective had not “broken with the discipline of ETA”.

The discipline of ETA – or rather, of the EPPK, which includes all Basque political prisoners – resulted in a collective renouncement of the use of violence, acknowledgment of the suffering caused, and recognition of the Spanish justice system’s authority. The collective made a difficult political decision and a historic compromise in order to achieve repatriation as a crucial peace-building measure.

Solidarity itself criminalised

The abuse of prisoners’ rights, and the widely documented use of torture by the Guardia Civil during the standard five-day incommunicado detention of political suspects, have long been among the most emotive issues in Basque society. The torture and mistreatment of political prisoners during the four-decade dictatorship of General Franco created a profound abhorrence among Basques for such abuses that continues to be deeply felt today, across the political spectrum.

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

Months after ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011, a massive demonstration for the repatriation of Basque prisoners was held in Bilbao in January 2012. One hundred thousand people marched. As a result of the groundswell of support for the campaign, a broad alliance of Basque civil society formed and legally registered ‘Herrira’ (Return Home) the following month, a committee that would campaign for the end to the dispersion policy.

Herrira organised a march for repatriation in Donostia/San Sebastian in January 2013 that swelled to 115,000 people. In September 2013, the Spanish government launched a series of raids against Herrira, shutting down the organisation and charging 18 of its activists with terrorism offences.

Never deterred, supporters of the campaign for repatriation quickly formed a new organisation, Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), and called for the annual demonstration for an end to dispersion to be held in Bilbao in January 2014.

But Judge Eloy Velasco from the Audiencia Nacional banned the march on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira. Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march but the ban provoked outrage and forged unity among all sections of Basque nationalist opinion.

Basque abertzale left party Sortu and its affiliated trade union confederation LAB immediately worked together with the conservative PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and its affiliated union the ELA to call for a new march on 11 January 2014 – which drew 130,000 people out on to the streets of Bilbao.

It was the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, and it called for ‘Human Rights, Resolution, Peace’. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held such a joint demonstration.

Yet another new organisation, Sare, was launched in September 2014 after Velasco’s attempt to criminalise Tantaz Tanta. In a stadium filled with 10,000 people, and addressed by Basque political figures, celebrities and cultural figures, Sare pledged to work for the repatriation of prisoners; for the release of seriously ill prisoners; and for the release of all those who have been jailed for purely political work. It has already distributed half a million copies of its ‘Book of Dispersion’ around the world.

Madrid’s intransigence is becoming increasingly difficult to justify as international pressure builds for the Spanish and French governments to grasp this historic opportunity for a comprehensive resolution to the long Basque conflict. And Basque society is becoming increasingly unified and mobilised in its demand for human rights and a peaceful resolution.

Sare representatives said in December that tonight’s silent demonstration will ensure that “the shout of thousands of silent voices of citizens reaches the last corner – so that the world perceives that putting an end to dispersion is necessary and urgent.”

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 basquepeaceprocess.info 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.”

1546025_508650879252482_1269580067_n

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.

Critical moment in Basque conflict resolution

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Published in An Phoblacht on 5 April 2010

At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held last month in Dublin, Kattalina Madriagia, a pro-independence left former MP from the Basque Country, spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy about the significance of the Basque Abertzale Left’s proposal for a democratic and peaceful process of political dialogue to begin.

Madriagia explained that for several years, a process has been unfolding among the Basque Abertzale Left of trying to break through the barriers put up by the Spanish and French states that have frustrated the development of the movement for Basque independence.

“In the past decade, the Abertzale Left movement, and Basque society in general, has experienced a surge in repression against us, in particular from the Spanish state forces,” Madriagia said.

“Successive Spanish governments have stepped up their efforts to criminalise and isolate the pro-independence movement within Basque society, and internationally.

“Today there are more than 750 Basque political prisoners, the highest number since the death of the fascist dictator General Franco in 1975. Torture in the prisons is widespread and well-documented. There is a wide array of repressive legislation in place that criminalises political parties, media outlets and cultural organisations.

“We face a major challenge of changing the current scenario and that is what the Abertzale Left’s proposal aims to do.”

Following months of discussion and debate, a large conference of Abertzale Left representatives, including from Batasuna, made a public statement in February stating their commitment to using “exclusively political and democratic means” to advance their political objectives – in which the democratic will of the Basque people would be respected “in a complete absence of violence and interference”.

Response

Madriagia told An Phoblacht that this proposal was highly significant and needed the active support of all sections of Basque society and international involvement to succeed.

“The proposal was received very well by the Basque people,” she said. “It was understood by Basque society, and supported by all the political parties and trade unions.

“But this need for active support for the proposal from the Basque people and the international community is all the more urgent since we have now seen the Spanish state’s response to the proposal, which is to opt for repression.”

Madriagia explained that the attacks on the leaders of the discussion process began before the document was even published. Eight high-profile left-wing political and labour leaders, including Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi, were arrested in October as a discussion paper was about to be published and charged with “trying to re-organise the leadership of Batasuna”.

“[In March] Arnaldo Otegi was sentenced to two years in jail for ‘glorifying terrorism’  –  on the basis of a speech he made at a rally in 2005 in which he compared a Basque political prisoner, who had been held in jail for 25 years, to Nelson Mandela. Otegi has also been banned from holding public office for 16 years.

“The Spanish state is clearly targeting those who are actively seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. ‘Securocrats’ fear a changed scenario and are determined to resist such change through repression. They want to avoid a united position developing among the Abertzale Left.”

International role

“We want to create a situation in which multi-party talks can take place, on the basis of the Mitchell Principles,” Madriagia said.

“International support for this process is crucial. After the process broke down in 2006, we maintained our relationship with the international actors. We hope that we can create a scenario whereby the international actors will facilitate a process of political dialogue.”

Madriagia said that she welcomed the response of solidarity from the Irish people to Basque ex-prisoner Inaki de Juana, who is fighting extradition to Spain from Belfast.

“Every time we are at the doors of a new process, the repression intensifies, and the extradition attempts against Basques around the world are part of this. These actions do not help the development of a peace process – they help maintain conflict.

“All international actors should take a pro-active position on this question of an opportunity for a peaceful process of conflict resolution, and not help put up obstacles.”

Madriagia said that there was a vital need for other EU countries to now put pressure on the Spanish government to end its strategy of trying to strangle and silence the Basque call for engagement.

“This is an important opportunity for progress that should not be wasted but we need to mobilise support internationally to achieve the construction of the new scenario envisioned in the Abertzale Left’s statement,” she said.

“We want to thank the Irish people and Sinn Féin for their historic and ongoing solidarity with our people and our struggle. We look to Ireland as a positive example of what dialogue can achieve and such a process can be built.”

‘Time for leadership’

On 16 March, ETA killed a French police officer in a shootout near Paris that resulted from a chance encounter between ETA members and police. The fatal shooting came days after the body of ex-prisoner and ETA member Jon Anza was found in a morgue in Toulouse. Anza’s disappearance in France last April is believed to have been caused by Spanish security forces, with the collaboration of the French security forces.

In a statement, the Abertzale Left said both cases showed the urgent need to build a new scenario in the Basque Country based on its initiative launched in February. The pro-independence left expressed sorrow for the policeman’s death and called on ETA and the Spanish and French states to make clear commitments to reviving the democratic process.

On 30 March a statement by international leaders, including former President of South Africa Frederick de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and former Irish President Mary Robinson, was presented in the European Parliament commending the public commitment from the Basque Abertzale Left to using “exclusively political and democratic” means to attain its political goals.

The statement called on ETA to support a permanent ceasefire and for the Spanish government to respond positively to such a declaration.

Commenting on the publication of this statement, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “The conflict in the Basque country can only be resolved through political dialogue. It is clear from this statement that the international community want to help to create such a process.

“The Irish Peace Process has shown the world that previously intractable conflicts can be resolved. Sinn Féin actively supports an inclusive process in the Basque Country.

“It is now important that the opportunity presented by the political initiative taken by Abertzale Left and the positive statement from international leaders is grasped by both ETA and the Spanish government.

“Now is the time for decisive political leadership. It is the time for the rights of the Basque people to be recognised and for a genuine conflict resolution process to be put in place.”