Basque youth activist interviewed

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Published by Sinn Féin Republican Youth in November 2009

Representatives from the Basque pro-independence youth organisation Segi visited Belfast from 13-15 November to participate in the Ógra Shinn Féin (now Sinn Féin Republican Youth) National Congress.

One of the Segi representatives spoke to An Phoblacht‘s Emma Clancy about the criminalisation of the pro-independence movement by the Spanish government; the recent Batasuna call for a democratic resolution to the Basque conflict, and the need to build solidarity between the Basque and Irish movements for independence. (As Segi has been banned by the Spanish government, the representative will remain anonymous.)

“As Ógra Shinn Féin celebrates 100 years of the Irish republican youth movement since the foundation of Na Fianna Éireann, we in Segi are celebrating 30 years since the formation of our predecessor organisation Jarrai,” the Segi representative said.

“Segi is a revolutionary socialist, feminist, pro-independence youth organisation. We organise young people across the Basque Country in struggles for their rights – for national rights and language and cultural rights, but also to improve their living conditions, housing, and their rights in the workplace or on campus.

“But while we celebrate three decades of struggle for Basque independence and socialism, our movement is coming under increasing repression.”

Segi (formerly Haika) was declared illegal in 2005 by the Audiencia Nacional (National Court, a Diplock-style political court in Madrid).

The court ruled that, while it was an “unauthorised” organisation, it could not be considered “terrorist” because it had no connection to political violence. But in 2007 the Spanish Supreme Court revised the ruling – despite there being no new evidence – and declared Jarrai-Haika-Segi to be a terrorist organisation.

“Now more than 100 of our comrades are in prison,” the Segi woman said.

“Now you can be jailed for eight years simply for membership of our organisation.

“The repression by the Spanish state against the youth movement is not only arrests and imprisonment, although these are its most obvious forms. The criminalisation goes much deeper and broader; it is structural.

“There are continual attacks against youth centres, youth demonstrations and gatherings. They are targeting not just pro-independence activists, but all community activists who provide leadership to strengthen their communities.”

The representative said that this year judgments have begun being handed down by the Spanish courts against Segi activists.

“Many have been held in ‘pre-trial detention’ since 2005 – four years being the maximum amount of time a person can be jailed before trial under Spanish law. The average sentence most young activists are receiving for their political activism is six years in jail,” she said.

“You can see the impact of the criminalisation campaign here in Belfast where Basque youth activist Arturo Beñat Villanueva is fighting extradition to Spain charged with membership of the youth movement.

“Each time a Basque political activist is arrested, the police come in the early hours of the morning and hold the person in incommunicado detention for five days, during which they are interrogated and often tortured.

“In many cases, police have forced the prisoners to sign statements saying they are members of a banned organisation, and judges will use these statements to convict the prisoners, even if is the only ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution.”

The activist said Segi “reaffirms its full support” for the proposal by Batasuna for a democratic resolution to the Basque conflict through a process in which the Basque people’s rights are recognised.

“This initiative is very significant and is the outcome of a process of discussion, consideration and reflection among the broad Basque pro-independence movement,” she said.

“As the initiative for peace and democracy was due to be announced in October, 10 leading Basque pro-independence activists were arrested and five of them remain in jail, including Batasuna spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi.

“The Spanish government clearly fears such an initiative that would pave the way for a democratic resolution to the Basque question.

“Only such a democratic process in which people’s rights are respected can lead to peace in Euskal Herria. Until then, there will be no lasting peace.”

She said that in as well as introducing legislation to criminalise all expressions of political support for Basque self-determination, the Spanish government was engaged in a “dirty war” of targeting political activists.

“Former prisoner and ETA volunteer Jon Anza disappeared in April this year,” she explained. “We believe Jon, who was ill at the time, was kidnapped and killed during the course of an illegal interrogation by the Spanish security forces and his body buried in France.”

“Several activists have been kidnapped, interrogated and beaten by security forces throughout the year as the Spanish government steps up its efforts to intimidate the movement and to recruit collaborators.

“We have to struggle against these actions, to bring about a situation where the state forces can no longer target political activists like this. We have no alternative.”

The Segi activist said that the PNV’s (conservative Basque Nationalist Party) loss of control of the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community in elections in March (which the left-nationalists were prohibited from participating in) showed the true nature of the so-called “autonomy” that had been granted to the Basque Autonomous Community after the death of fascist dictator General Franco in 1975.

The two main Spanish parties, the PSOE and PP, formed an alliance to oust the nationalists from power after the election in March this year in which more than 100,000 Basques were disenfranchised as the parties they supported were banned.

“When Franco died and the Spanish constitution was introduced, the PNV helped blind people to the fact that what was on offer was not self-determination for the Basque people, but an attempt to divide us and have the Basques assimilate into the Spanish state,” she said.

“We can see 30 years later the impact of this strategy – in combination with repression and disenfranchisement – when the same parties that rule in Madrid are in power in the supposedly autonomous Basque parliament. There is no autonomy, only assimilation.

“The repression has certainly intensified since the PNV lost power. Over the summer almost 1,000 people were arrested under the charge of ‘glorifying terrorism’ for displaying photographs of the 740 Basque political prisoners in Spanish and French jails.”

The Segi activist said she believed “the best answer to these attacks is to develop the initiative proposed by Batasuna, to build the conditions in which the Spanish state forces feel pressured to sit down and have the discussion about the Basque nation’s rights that needs to be had”.

She said the Segi delegation was proud to participate in Ógra’s centenary celebrations as the Basque youth movement was celebrating its 30-year anniversary of struggling for independence and socialism.

“Our organisations share the same goals and have many similar experiences,” she said.

“At the moment, although we share the same objectives, we are working in different conditions and it is very important to develop links of solidarity between our sister organisations. Over the years Jarrai-Haika-Segi have sent many representatives to Ireland, and many Ógra activists have visited Euskal Herria.

“We have much to learn from each other, and these links of solidarity enrich the struggle, experience and knowledge of both organisations.

“Segi views the progress of the Irish republican movement in advancing national and democratic rights as a reference, a model, and as a source of hope and inspiration for our struggle.”

Leaders’ arrests fail to silence Basque independence movement

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

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

Published in An Phoblacht on 22 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnaldo Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basque anti-extradition campaign launched in Belfast

Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva and Iñaki de Juana at the campaign launch

Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva and Iñaki de Juana at the campaign launch

Published in An Phoblacht on 11 June 2009

THE Don’t Extradite the Basques Campaign was formally launched on Wednesday 10 June against the extradition to Spain of Belfast-based Basque pro-independence activists Iñaki de Juana and Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva at a press conference in An Chultúrlann.

Civil rights activist Fearghas Ó hÍr outlined the campaign on behalf of the committee, joined by a range of supporters including prominent human rights defenders and community activists, aiming to demonstrate the broad support for the human and civil rights of the Basque people from across the Belfast community.

An online petition against the extraditions was also launched at the press conference. Initial signatories to this petition include Fearghas Ó hÍr, human rights lawyer Pádraigín Drinan, Eamon McCann (NUJ National Executive), Gerry McConville (Chair, West Belfast Partnership Board) and Michael Culbert (former Antrim and St Gall’s Football Manager).

Iñaki de Juana

Speaking on behalf of the campaign, Fearghas Ó hÍr said: “The Spanish authorities are trying to extradite Iñaki de Juana, who served 21 years in Spanish jails, from Belfast, where he moved immediately after his release in August last year, to face questioning related to charges of ‘glorifying terrorism’.

“The arrest warrant is based on somebody at a rally in Donostia in August, which was celebrating Iñaki’s release from prison, reading a letter that used the popular Basque expression ‘Aurrera bolie’ (‘Kick the ball forward’). The Spanish authorities claim this phrase constitutes a call for the continuation of armed struggle.

“Iñaki was not present at this rally and denies writing such a letter, which Spanish police admit they cannot produce. There is no evidence that this comment was Iñaki’s or that it somehow constitutes a terrorist offence.

“There has been a virulent and sustained hate campaign against Iñaki by the Spanish media for many years, and Spain’s former justice minister has previously publicly called for the judges to ‘construct new charges’ against Iñaki to ‘keep him in jail’,” Ó hÍr explained.

“It is very clear that behind the warrant for ‘questioning’ issued by Spain is the agenda of putting Iñaki back in prison, despite the fact that these new charges are baseless.”

Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva

Ó hÍr then outlined the case of Basque youth activist Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva, who was arrested in March 2001 by the Spanish police, with 15 other young pro-independence activists, and was accused of being a member of Basque pro-independence socialist youth organisation Jarrai.

“While Jarrai is a solely political organisation, it was declared illegal by the Spanish authorities in 2005 and categorised as a “terrorist” organisation by Spain’s Supreme Court in 2007,” Ó hÍr explained.

“Charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’, Beñat faced a possible 14-year jail sentence for his political activism. Released on bail after 10 months in prison, he did not attend what many believed to be a political show trial.

“In 2004, Beñat decided to seek refuge in Belfast from Spanish political persecution and the risk of torture.

“At the time of Beñat’s alleged membership of Jarrai (1994-2000), the organisation was legal. The Spanish court is applying the law that criminalised Jarrai retrospectively.

“Beñat is being targeted by the Spanish authorities for carrying out political, public and peaceful youth work in the Basque Country. His only ‘crime’ has been his political ideas in favour of Basque independence and socialism,” Ó hÍr said.

Political persecution

“In its effort to prevent the Basque people from exercising their democratic right to self-determination, Spain is breaching several fundamental rights as outlined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression, of peaceful assembly and association, the right to take part in the government of their state and the right not to be subjected to torture or abuse,” Ó hÍr said.

“Iñaki de Juana and Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva are clearly being persecuted solely for their political opinions, not for any criminal activity. We believe that there is a serious danger that they will not receive a fair hearing within the Spanish judicial system and face the risk of torture.

Mr Ó hÍr continued: “These extradition requests are politically unacceptable and we are calling on all those who support basic civil rights to sign the petition against the extraditions.”

The campaign petition demands that the Spanish government respects the fundamental human, civil and political rights of the Basque people as laid out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and that it ends its campaign of criminalisation against the Basque pro-independence movement.

The petition supports the human right of de Juana and Villanueva not to be persecuted by the Spanish government for their political opinions.

It calls on the British government to immediately reject the extradition requests and to refuse to collaborate with the Spanish government in this political persecution.

Finally, the petition supports the right of de Juana and Villanueva to live freely in Ireland.