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/

Erdoğan views Kurds as stepping stone to total power

A PKK checkpoint in Silvan, southeast Turkey, on August 19. (Reuters)

A PKK checkpoint in Silvan, southeast Turkey, on August 19. (Reuters)

Kurdish pro-independence activists have erected barricades, and elected representatives have declared self-government in several towns and villages across northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) since August 10. The declarations come in response to renewed attacks on Kurdish militants and civilians by Turkish security forces.

According to Kurdish media outlets, the towns, villages and districts that have declared self-government include Silopi, Cizre, Lice, Varto, Bağlar in Batman, Sur and Silvan in Diyarbakir, Bulanik, Yüksekova, Şemdinli, Edremit and Doğubeyazit, among others. Significantly, the Gazi neighbourhood in Istanbul declared self-government on August 18.

Mayors and elected representatives of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), together with neighbourhood assemblies, have supported the declarations of self-government, saying the Turkish regime “did not represent them”. Four mayors in Diyarbakir were arrested on August 18.

The Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has given unlimited powers to the security forces and declared a state of emergency in the areas of resistance over the past week.

The Turkish army has backed up Special Forces and police in carrying out attacks, which have included aerial bombardment, the burning of homes, raids, and the shooting of combatants and civilians. Military curfews have been declared, and the affected districts are besieged by the army.

Kurdish protesters hold placards with Ekin Wan's face on August 19.

Kurdish protesters hold placards with Ekin Wan’s face on August 19.

One of the first towns to declare self-government on August 13 was Varto in Muş province, where Kurdish combatant Kevser Eltürk (with the nom de guerre Ekin Wan) was killed in a gun battle with Turkish Special Forces on August 10. Ekin Wan was a fighter in YJA-STAR (Free Women’s Units), the women’s military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

After her death, Ekin Wan’s bloodied corpse was stripped naked and dragged through the streets by Special Forces who photographed the desecration and uploaded it onto the internet, sparking protests across Turkey.

Kurdish media reports that in the days following the declaration of self-government, Varto was attacked by tanks, helicopters and Special Forces soldiers. A PKK graveyard was bombed while military helicopters opened fire on villagers in Varto and several surrounding villages. Special Forces entered to conduct house raids and make arrests, while soldiers are reported to have set fire to houses and forests. The operations in Varto have been replicated in Kurdish towns and villages across southeast Turkey.

Turkish author and former war correspondent Cengiz Çandar described the developments of the past week as a “mass youth uprising by the PKK” that surpasses the scale of similar urban uprisings during the 1990s.

Kurdish activists too have said the security forces’ aggression is reminiscent of attacks on Kurdish communities during the 1990s, in which around three millions Kurds were displaced and thousands were killed. Since the PKK-led Kurdish insurgency began in 1984, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict – the majority Kurdish civilians.

Erdoğan ended a two-year ceasefire on July 24 when his government resumed attacks on Kurdish communities in Turkey, as well as launching airstrikes against PKK bases across the border in southern Kurdistan (in Iraq).

By August 19, Turkish officials claimed that more than 50 security force members, around 400 PKK members and “at least seven” civilians have been killed in the recent violence. The PKK have rejected the claim regarding their casualties and say they have lost 30 members. The official figure for civilian deaths appears to be patently false, given that Amnesty International has verified that eight Kurdish civilians were killed in one Turkish airstrike alone in the village of Zergele in the Qandil mountains in Iraq on August 1.

After Suruç

The July 20 attack by an Islamic State supporter on a group of socialist youth activists in the Kurdish town of Suruç inside Turkey, near the Syrian border, was the spark for the collapse of the two-year ceasefire and peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK.

Activists on the bus to Suruç before the bombing. (Victim Hatice Ezgi Sadet's Instagram)

Activists on the bus to Suruç before the bombing. (Victim Hatice Ezgi Sadet’s Instagram)

The activists who were killed were members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), the youth wing of the of Socialist Party of the Oppressed – a founding member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) coalition. The leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP won 13 per cent of the vote in general elections in Turkey in June; its co-leader, Figen Yüksekdağ, is a former chairperson of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed.

The youth activists were preparing to travel to Kobanê, the Kurdish city across the border in Syria, to build a library and playground, and assist in the general rebuilding of the town after the siege and conflict between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State. In a crowd of around 300 people who had gathered for a public declaration to farewell the delegation in Amara Cultural Centre, a young Islamic State supporter blew himself up, killing 32 people; another later died from injuries.

The Islamist suicide bombing against the pro-Kurdish left has somehow been used by the Turkish government as a pretext to launch an all-out attack – against the pro-Kurdish left.

As international leaders sent their condolences to Erdoğan’s AKP government over what they referred to as “Islamic State’s attack on Turkey”, Kurds accused the government of collusion in the bombing. Specifically, they believe the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) was directly involved.

Survivors asked the question: how was the bomber able to freely walk into the Amara Cultural Centre when there was a strong security presence surrounding it, and the activists had all been searched on their way in? Later, the funeral processions of almost all of the victims were attacked by Turkish security forces. The rapid pace of political developments in the days following the bombing appear to confirm the Kurds’ belief of government involvement.

Kurdish militants from the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), an armed youth movement associated with the PKK, claimed responsibility for the killings of two Turkish police officers on 22 July, who they said had collaborated with Islamic State.

Ankara-Washington deal

Three days later the bombing – after providing both tacit and practical support to various Islamist forces fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad during the civil war since 2011 – Erdoğan struck an agreement with the US on July 23. Under the deal the US can use Turkish air bases to launch airstrikes across the border against Syria, and Turkey has agreed to contribute directly to the war on Islamic State in Syria by carrying out its own strikes.

A “safety zone” along part of Syria’s border with Turkey is to be made free of both Islamic State and Kurdish militants, according to the terms of the agreement. This is the most significant element of the agreement as far as Erdoğan is concerned. There are three cantons in Rojava, the Kurdish area in Syria that runs along a large part of the border with Turkey. Following the recent victory of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) over Islamic State in Tal Abyad, two of the three cantons, Kobanê and Cizere, were joined contiguously for the first time.

The precise area the “safety zone” is proposed to cover will ensure the YPG cannot join the two Kurdish cantons with the third, Afrin, as the US-Turkish joint “clear and hold” operation aims to rid the area of both Islamic State and Kurdish fighters. The absurdity of the US agreeing to limit the operations of the most effective military force fighting Islamic State in Syria in this way has been pointed out by many.

Announcing the agreement domestically, Erdoğan said his government would carry out a “synchronised war against terror” that would target both Islamic State and the PKK.

As of August 19, Turkey had launched airstrikes against just three Islamic State targets, and more than 300 against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the first three weeks of the campaign of repression, 1,300 “terrorism suspects” were arrested – 137 alleged to be linked to Islamic State, and 847 were accused of PKK membership. The Islamist suspects were quickly released; the Kurds were not. The total number of alleged activists now detained since July stands at more than 2,600, almost all of them Kurds.

‘Your silence is killing Kurds’

Yet most of the Western mainstream media has parroted the lines that Erdoğan has joined the war against Islamic State and the PKK are a secondary target in a broader crackdown, and the PKK has initiated the latest round of violence and caused the breakdown in peace talks.

A PKK member collects pieces of metal at a crater caused by Turkish air strikes on July 29 in the Qandil mountains, northern Iraq. (AFP)

A PKK member collects pieces of metal at a crater caused by Turkish air strikes on July 29 in the Qandil mountains, northern Iraq. (AFP)

The report by the New York Times on August 18 was typical of this coverage: “Mr Erdogan’s government decided to move more forcefully against the Islamic State last month after a suicide bombing in the southeastern district of Suruc that killed at least 34 people.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 3: “In parallel with its new military strikes against Islamic State, Turkey has targeted bases in northern Iraq used by the outlawed Kurdish separatist group PKK. The deadly airstrikes came in response to increased attacks by the PKK against Turkish security forces that are threatening a fragile peace process.”

The Huffington Post, however, reported on August 19 that Turkey pays US lobbyists and public relations firms around $5 million a year to win public and political favour. Among the lobbyists on the payroll is Porter Goss, who was CIA director from 2004-2006. Within days of renewing attacks on Kurds, Turkey hired the Squire Patton Boggs lobby group, which includes retired senators and White House officials, to propagate its version of the conflict.

There has been an almost-total media blackout in relation to the attacks on Kurds within Turkey and the urban warfare that has engulfed a major part of the country, prompting social media campaigns to target Western media with the hashtag, #YourSilenceIsKillingKurds.

In Turkey, where for decades the media has been prevented from reporting on PKK attacks and casualties among security forces, the media is now beaming a constant stream of “stories of those who were killed, kidnapped policemen, attacked government buildings and assets, along with bomb threats,” according to Pinar Tremblay, writing in Al-Monitor. “Turkish audiences have not seen this many funerals since the early days of the conflict in the late 1980s.”

Putting power before peace

The Turkish president has invested a significant amount of political capital in achieving a lasting peace settlement with the Kurds of Turkey, who number 15 million, around one-fifth of the total population. Before becoming president, Erdoğan served as the prime minister from 2003-2014. In 2005, he admitted the existence of a “Kurdish problem” in Turkey, and under his government secret peace talks were held between the PKK and the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation in Oslo.

The process eventually led to the declaration from jail of a ceasefire on Newroz day (Kurdish New Year) in March 2013 by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned since 1999. The ceasefire proved durable, and in February this year a more comprehensive agreement was announced by HDP and AKP representatives, including the Interior Minister and the deputy prime minister. The 10-point Dolmabahçe Agreement dealt with conflict resolution issues including disarmament, human rights and constitutional reform.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

On July 17 Erdoğan said: “I do not recognise the phrase ‘Dolmabahçe Agreement’… There cannot be an agreement with a political party that is being supported by a terrorist organisation.”

What changed? In general elections in June, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. The pro-Kurdish left-wing HDP won 13 per cent of the vote, meaning it met the 10 per cent threshold a political party must reach in order to sit in the Turkish parliament. This threshold was imposed with the aim of silencing voices of political opposition by the constitution adopted in 1982 following the 1980 military coup. It has meant Kurds have been largely excluded from the democratic process ever since, making the result in June historic.

The party, its candidates and campaign workers were harassed and physically attacked, sometimes lethally, throughout the election campaign. On June 5, its major pre-election rally in Diyarbakir was bombed. Four people were killed and dozens more were injured. Other HDP election rallies were attacked by fascists; its offices were shot at and bombed; and campaign worker Hamdullah Öğe was assassinated while driving a HDP vehicle.

Despite the violence and intimidation, voters turned out in large numbers to support the HDP – which also attracted votes from non-Kurdish communities on the basis of its secular, feminist and left-wing positions.

One the HDP's mass election rallies (Piczard)

One of the HDP’s mass election rallies. (Piczard)

The AKP required 276 seats to form a majority government in the 550-seat parliament; it won 258, dropping from around 50 per cent of the vote to just above 40 per cent. The social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 132 seats, while the HDP and the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) each won 80 seats. Of the 80 HDP candidates elected, 32 were women, bringing the number of female MPs in the Turkish parliament to a record high of 98. All leadership positions in the HDP are co-chaired by a woman and a man.

The current government is an interim government; if no coalition is formed by August 23, Prime Minister Davutoglu must dissolve the cabinet. If this happens, an all-party ‘election government’ will be formed until the new elections – which must be within 90 days.

The HDP rejected the AKP’s overtures for a coalition government from the beginning, and AKP talks with the CHP, then the MHP, have broken down. But it’s highly likely that Erdoğan had no intention of forming a coalition government, and would prefer to hold snap elections in November in which he believes the AKP can regain its majority.

Erdoğan wants an executive presidency

The election results also blocked plans Erdoğan had made for constitutional reform that could only be made through the parliament if the AKP won a two-thirds majority, or 367 seats. After ruling as prime minister for 11 years, he is clearly dissatisfied with what he calls the “ceremonial” role of the president, and he intended after the election to create an “executive presidency” that would dramatically extend his personal power.

The president had formerly been appointed by the parliament, but a 2010 referendum allowed for direct election of the president, and the first such election was won by Erdoğan last August.

Immediately after his election, Erdoğan opened an opulent new 1,000-room presidential palace that cost Turkish taxpayers well over $600 million to construct. In May this year, the AKP-majority parliament granted Erdoğan a “discretionary fund” for “discreet intelligence and defence services” not subject to any form of judicial, administrative or parliamentary oversight – in other words, his own private army.

HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş responded to the establishment of the discretionary fund by calling it a “civil coup”.

“The palace has its own special army authorised to collect intelligence, its own discretionary budget. That is, it has created a one-man, separate state,” he said.

On August 13, AKP leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said he had failed to reach a coalition deal with the CHP. The following day, Erdoğan indicated that he will attempt to achieve an ‘executive presidency’ without the required two-thirds majority if the AKP wins a simple majority in snap elections – or perhaps even before then.

“There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one,” he said. “Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”

Demirtaş called for a referendum to be held on the proposed change, which the HDP opposes, saying: “The state regime cannot be changed with a fait accompli.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu described the statement as the “acknowledgement of a coup”.

New elections

The general election was held on June 7; from June 8 the AKP has been planning a new snap election and a way to rapidly diminish the HDP’s support base. If the HDP were to drop below the 10 per cent threshold and be excluded from parliament, then in all seats where a HDP candidate topped the poll the seat would go to the runner-up – in most cases, an AKP candidate.

In anticipation of a new election, Erdoğan and the AKP are making a concerted effort to link the HDP with the PKK, and to alienate conservative Kurdish voters from supporting the HDP, in the belief that this will result in the party failing to meet the 10 per cent threshold. At the same time the AKP is appealing to right-wing nationalists to reward its hardline position.

Many analysts have predicted that the move may backfire and drive the entire Kurdish population in Turkey to vote for the HDP. The head of polling company Metropoll, Özer Sencar, said on CNNTurk on August 18 that the HDP is likely to become the third-largest party in Turkey if fresh elections are held in November, and could win up to 17-18 per cent of the vote – an outcome he was at pains to explain he believed would be “extremely wrong” for Turkey.

HDP co-chairs Selahettin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ

HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ (AP)

Of course, the caretaker government led by the AKP may attempt to outlaw the HDP and prevent it from participating in fresh elections. On July 31, Turkish media reported that a criminal investigation has been opened into both HDP co-chairs, Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, for “inciting violence” and “propagandising for terrorist organisations” respectively, over speeches they have given in support of Kurds in Kobanê and the rest of Rojava. In Demirtaş’s case, if the case is prosecuted and he is found guilty, he faces up to 24 years in prison.

Eight opposition MPs from the CHP and HDP have also had an ‘investigation authorisation report’ sent to the parliament by the deputy prime minister, which provides legal authority to open an investigation into an MP’s activities.

The current indications are that the government will continue to target individuals and not attempt to outlaw the HDP itself – but this could change in response to the declarations of self-government across Kurdish districts.

Erdoğan’s renewed aggression against the PKK should not only be understood in domestic terms. It is also shaped significantly by the major advances made by Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. The dismal repercussions of attacking the most effective resistance to Islamic State in the region have yet to fully play out. But his decision to walk away from an historic opportunity to end decades of conflict, in a cynical and transparent grab for personal power, may have unleashed a rebellion by Kurdish youth in Turkey that he will not be able to contain.

Kurdish pro-independence forces are stronger now – better organised, with more territory and more international support – than they were in the 1990s.

A second article examining the Kurdish struggle against Islamic State in Rojava, and the impact of the US-Turkey deal to establish a safety zonealong the Turkey-Syria border, will follow shortly.

When free trade isn’t enough: A corporate grab for policy power

US workers protest against 'Fast Track', or the Trade Promotion Authority. Photo from AFL-CIO.

US workers protest against ‘Fast Track’, or the Trade Promotion Authority. Photo from AFL-CIO.

The new generation of free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are less about reducing already-low tariffs, and more about providing multi-national corporations with the power to determine public policy. This is the first part in a two-part article on the politics and likely impact of this new generation of trade deals.

As the US Congress resumes sitting after the Easter break, the Obama administration’s number one priority is to convince sceptical House Democrats to approve his Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or so-called ‘Fast-Track’ legislation. The TPA would allow for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement currently under negotiation to be signed and entered into by the President without Congressional approval. Implementation legislation would then be fast-tracked through Congress without amendments in a filibuster-free yes-or-no vote within 90 days.

Political commentators estimate that Obama still needs to convince between 40 and 50 members of his Democratic party to support Fast-Track in the Republican-controlled 435-seat House of Representatives. The TPA is already supported by the vast majority of House Republicans, with the exception of a group of Tea-Party types who appear to be opposing it for the sheer joy of blocking any further delegation of power to Obama.

If agreement is not reached and a TPA bill tabled before Congress goes into recess in August, it is all but certain that the US will not be able to seal the deal on TPP before 2017 – after the presidential election primaries, and the election itself in 2016. It’s also highly unlikely that TPP could get through Congress without Fast-Track.

It’s a sorry spectacle: Obama trying to drum up support from his base to implement the agenda of the massive corporations that did their utmost to prevent his election and re-election – an agenda that, if successful, will unpick his key achievements in progressive domestic policy reforms, from affordable healthcare to increased regulation of the financial sector.

Environmental groups and progressive economists and academics are backing the Congressional opposition to Fast-Track led by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The AFL-CIO is campaigning for Democrats to maintain their stance against TPA, and it is continuing to withhold contributions to Democratic congressional campaigns to maximise the pressure. A letter to all House representatives and Senators asking them to oppose Fast-Track was jointly signed by the leaders of every union in the country in March, representing more than 20 million workers.

The total undermining of congressional oversight in Fast-Track, though alarming, is not the chief concern of those who oppose it. It’s the content of the trans-Pacific trade deal that the TPA would fast-track that is fuelling the opposition, and with good cause.

The TPP is part of a ‘new generation’ of free trade agreements that move far beyond the lowering of tariffs and aim primarily to remove ‘non-tariff barriers to trade’ by reaching regulatory coherence or harmonisation between parties. Without a doubt, this will result in a trans-Pacific race to the bottom on labour standards and environmental protections, as well as the offshoring of jobs from industrialised countries; the prising open of access to the state-owned enterprises of poor nations for multi-national corporations; and the imposition of stricter intellectual property demands on these nations. If signed, TPP will cover 800 million people and 40 per cent of the global economy. Next on the agenda is the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) under negotiation between the US and EU.

Negotiations for the TPP began in 2010 and it now includes 12 Pacific rim countries – the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Mexico, Chile and Peru. It is to be a ‘living agreement’ – which means other countries can join further down the track, and that the content of the TPP can be altered with agreement from the parties. The text of the proposed agreement and the negotiations have been kept secret, but key chapters have leaked.

The negotiations are reportedly nearing conclusion, with the remaining sticking points being a dispute between the US and Japan over tariffs in the US agriculture sector and in Japan’s car industry. The chief negotiators for the 12 countries met for a week in Hawaii in March and will meet again at the APEC summit in the Philippines in May. Negotiators for several countries have made it clear they are not willing to sign up to an agreement unless Obama secures Fast-Track.

The secrecy that has shrouded the talks has contributed to the hostility to the TPP among the public in the US and other countries. Then US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in an interview with Reuters in May 2012: “There’s a practical reason, for our ability both to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise, that we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality.”

Reuters went on to say that Kirk noted during the interview “that about a decade ago negotiators released the draft text of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and were subsequently unable to reach a final agreement”. When the Bush administration released the draft text of the FTAA in 2001, an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the resulting public outcry across the Americas was the beginning of the end for the proposed deal.

The US has existing free trade agreements with 20 states. The bitter experience of previous agreements, particularly NAFTA, signed in 1994, has made the US labour movement deeply wary of TPP, which would cover 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. During the NAFTA negotiations between the US, Canada and Mexico, then US President Bill Clinton promised the agreement would create 20 million new export-based jobs in the US. It didn’t – instead, it led to a net loss of almost one million US jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Industrial investment was off-shored to to Mexico resulting in job losses and a steady downward pressure on US wages.

The impact of NAFTA on Mexico was, of course, much harsher. More than two million small farmers and rural labourers were ruined and dislocated. The minimum wage in Mexico in 2013 was 24 per cent lower in real terms than in 1993. Growth has slowed to less than one per cent annually since 1994 and the poverty rate in 2012 was 52 percent of the population.

According to US NGO Public Citizen, of the 29 chapters of the the draft TPP agreement, only five are actually related to trade issues – the rest focus on the so-called non-tariff barriers. In November 2013, Wikileaks released the draft chapter on Intellectual Property Rights, followed by the draft Environment chapter in January 2014. Observers have gleaned further information from the few public statements made by negotiators regarding the content of the agreement.

Opponents of TPP expect many aspects of the NAFTA experience to be replicated in the trans-Pacific region. One of the most objectionable elements of TPP to the US labour movement is the chapter on government procurement, which will outlaw the ‘Buy American’ laws (some in place since 1934) that favour domestic producers in government contracts as being discriminatory to foreign firms. The major discrepancy in labour conditions and wages across the 12 TPP countries will mean further offshoring of jobs – for example, to Vietnam, where the average monthly wage is US$145.

The large proportion of services delivered in Vietnam by significant state-owned enterprises are also in the sights of the US corporations backing the trade deal, with the US Trade Representative’s office claiming that “levelling the playing field” between private firms and state-owned enterprises is a central goal of the pact.

Among the most vicious proposals in TPP is the plan pushed by major pharmaceutical companies to force impoverished Pacific countries to sign up to the US model of intellectual property rights, which go beyond the World Trade Organisation (WTO)-administered agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) made in 1994.

A map of TPP countries. Image from New York Times.

A map of TPP countries. Image from New York Times.

The leaked intellectual property chapter of TPP confirmed that the warnings of public health experts and the World Health Organisation were well-founded – that the US is pushing for stricter rules in TPP countries on medicine patents, which will restrict the availability of affordable medicines. Flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement exempt ‘least developed countries’ from having to grant pharmaceutical patents up until 2016. But so-called TRIPS-plus provisions in TPP will uniformly delay the production of generic drugs for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, by including an “automatic monopoly period” of up to 12 years for patented drugs before generic versions can be manufactured – putting treatment out of reach for potentially millions of patients across the Pacific for a decade or more.

A May 2012 briefing paper on the impact of free trade agreements on public health by the UN Development Programme and UNAIDS said: “TRIPS flexibilities were implemented and endorsed by the global community as methods to mitigate the impact of WTO Agreements on access to affordable, quality pharmaceuticals.” The report cites a study on the impact of the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement that estimates an increase of almost $1 billion being spent on medicines in Colombia by 2020, or alternatively a 40 per cent decrease in medicine consumption.

The UN paper adds that in order to keep the benefits of the TRIPS flexibilities, “countries, at minimum should avoid entering into FTAs that contain TRIPS-plus obligations that can impact on pharmaceuticals price or availability”. Economist Joeseph Stiglitz has written: “In the poorest countries, this is not just about moving money into corporate coffers: thousands would die unnecessarily.”

The intellectual property chapter has also alarmed internet freedom activists, who believe the proponents of the failed US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA), which were scuttled due to public opposition in 2012, are aiming to implement a similar regime under the cover of the TPP. SOPA and PIPA proposed empowering the government to block internet service providers of infringing websites and to penalise individuals who accessed copyrighted content with jail terms. The leaked chapter includes text that would expand copyright periods significantly beyond TRIPS.

Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the leaked proposals restrict innovation and freedom of expression online, and that provisions on trade secrets mean countries will be able to “enact harsh criminal punishments against anyone who reveals or even accesses information through a ‘computer system’ that is allegedly confidential”.

And internet privacy advocates are equally concerned by the leaked detail on data flow provisions that they believe will allow privacy protections to be challenged on the basis that they act as an unfair barrier to trade. The text includes prohibitions on countries deciding where private data is stored – ie, in onshore or offshore data centres.

The protection of investors’ rights is the most controversial of all aspects of the TPP, and it is this aspect of the pact that environmentalists are most concerned about. Regardless of domestic policies that may exist or be introduced to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions, investment in the fossil fuel industry, including in shale, will be locked in and unassailable. The leaked Environment chapter of TPP contains soft and aspirational language in comparison to the other leaked chapters. University  of Auckland Professor Jane Kelsey, who provides an analysis of the leaked text, writes of the Environment chapter: “The obligations are weak and compliance with them is unenforceable.”

Corporate justice and socialised risk

The TPP proposes to ease restrictions on investment and boost protection for investors. The centrepiece of this protection is the ISDS or investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism. The ISDS mechanism will allow private companies to sue national governments for compensation for loss of “expected future profits” in response to government actions that impact on the company’s activities in private offshore tribunals that comprise three lawyers with the power to award damages.

The critical Investment chapter of the TPP leaked and surfaced on Wikileaks on March 25, and was dated January 20, 2015. Activists universally responded to the leak by describing the ISDS provisions as even worse than feared. Footnote 29 of the leaked chapter states that Australia is exempt from the ISDS provisions but adds: “deletion of footnote is subject to certain conditions”.

Coordinator of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Dr Patricia Ranald said that the Australian government “is using ISDS as a bargaining chip in the hope of improved access to US agricultural markets” and appears to be “about to agree to ISDS” under certain conditions. Australia has existing agreements with 28 countries that include ISDS provisions.

The former Labor government in Australia banned the inclusion of ISDS mechanisms in future trade deals. But this policy has been overturned by the conservative Abbott government, which says it will assess each trade deal on a case-by-case basis. It has already signed up to a major free trade agreement with South Korea, released in February 2014, which includes an ISDS provision.

The action by tobacco giant Philip Morris against the Australian government over its introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes in 2010 has become the most infamous and emblematic example of ISDS in action. There are three main reasons why the case, which was launched in 2011 and is ongoing, has generated a deep suspicion towards ISDS among the public internationally.

First and foremost is the fact that a major corporation peddling a deadly project is entitled to sue a national government for implementing an important and effective public health measure. Secondly, there is the fact that Philip Morris exhausted its legal avenues in Australia’s national courts, having its claim rejected in the High Court before it decided to invoke ISDS – when Australian citizens and companies are not entitled to any further recourse beyond the High Court.

Finally, there is the blatant cynicism in Philip Morris’s manoeuvring, known as ‘treaty shopping’, that allowed it to launch the ISDS action over the supposed appropriation of its trademark by the Australian government. In February 2011 Philip Morris Australia, which was then owned entirely by a Swiss company, was bought by Hong Kong-based Philip Morris Asia. Australia did not have an ISDS trade agreement with Switzerland, but it did have a 1993 trade deal with Hong Kong that included ISDS provisions.

Most commentators believe Philip Morris will lose the case, but that hasn’t prevented it from threatening other countries that have expressed their intention to introduce cigarette plain packaging legislation. It had already brought a case against Uruguay in 2010 for introducing health warnings on packaging.

In March this year, Ireland became the second state in the world to introduce plain packaging. Comedian John Oliver covered the story on his Last Week Tonight programme, quoting from a June 2013 letter to the Irish government from a subsidiary of Philip Morris International threatening legal action that included the line, “As a dance is only meaningful when danced, so a trademark is only meaningful when used”. “And you know you have a pretty weak legal argument,” Oliver commented, “if it sounds like a rejected fucking Jewel lyric”.

The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism was first introduced into trade agreements and treaties in the 1950s, ostensibly to protect investors from outright government expropriation of their land or factories in countries that lacked a robust legal system. It was rarely used until the 1990s when the US-led surge in free trade agreements made it a more readily accessible option for multi-national corporations. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), there has been a ten-fold rise in reported cases 2000.

Obama at TPP meeting in Hawaii 2011

US president Barack Obama at the TPP Leaders meeting at the APEC summit in 2011. Photo: Reuters

An ISDS mechanism is now included in more than 3,000 trade agreements around the world, around 2,700 of which are bilateral investment agreements and the remainder of which are trade treaties. According to UNCTAD, by the end of 2014 there have been a total of 608 known ISDS cases brought against more than 100 national governments that have resulted in the payout to multi-nationals of an unknown amount that totals billions of dollars.

In 2014 alone, 42 ISDS decisions were handed down, and the awards in just three of these totalled an unprecedented $50 billion. Corporations from the US and the European Union combined have initiated 64 per cent of claims that are publicly known. But because ISDS arbitration can be kept totally private, there may be many other cases the public is unaware of.

Canada, which entered into an ISDS agreement with the US through NAFTA, expected that its investors would be enabled to sue the Mexican government but was unprepared for the series of cases brought against it by US corporations, which have led it to pay out at least $158 million in compensation or settlements. Outstanding cases against Canada include damages claims of $6 billion. The US government has never yet lost an ISDS case. Just wait until it enters an ISDS agreement with Japan under TPP, observers warn.

The mechanism has repeatedly been used to directly challenge legislation by democratic governments made in the public interest. After NAFTA, the Canadian government banned a fuel additive, MMT, due to it having been found to be a risk to human health and the environment. It was sued by US MMT manufacturer Ethyl for a loss of expected future profits and settled the case for $13 million. The settlement included not only a payout but an obligation on the Canadian government to rescind the ban and publicly declare that MMT was safe.

Argentina was sued by more than 40 corporations after it took action to devalue its currency and freeze energy and water bills in the wake of its 2001 financial crisis. Compensation orders against Argentina for these actions reached $1.15 billion by 2008. In Ecuador, after the government cancelled Occidental Petroleum contracts for illegally breaching contractual terms, the US oil company was awarded $1.77 billion. Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela have now withdrawn from the World Bank’s investor dispute mechanism and withdrawn from many bilateral investment treaties that contain an ISDS mechanism.

In response to the Arab Spring in 2011, the then Egyptian government conceded an increase in the minimum monthly wage from $56 to $99 – only to be sued in June 2012 for almost $100 million by French corporation Veolia, which objected to having to pay its Alexandria bus station workers more.

In an intellectual property case, US drug corporation Eli Lilly is suing Canada under NAFTA over its laws that require the patentability of a medicine to be proved before a patent is granted – a law with the public policy goal of ensuring accessibility to affordable medicines.

In another case under NAFTA, Canada is being sued by US company Lone Pine Resources for $230 million for the declaration by the Quebec government of a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in 2011. The moratorium resulted in the revocation of Lone Pine’s permit to frack gas from underneath the St Lawrence River, which was an essential source of drinking water in Quebec.

In 2011, Swedish energy corporation Vattenfall claimed €1.4 billion in damages from Germany for placing environmental restrictions on a coal-fired power plant the company was building in Hamburg. The government settled – lifting the restrictions. After the Fukishima nuclear disaster, the German government made a decision to phase out nuclear energy. The same Swedish company, Vattenfall, sued under ISDS again in 2012 – this time for €3.7 billion for the loss of profits in its two nuclear power plants.

The examples go on.

If successful, the US-led drive to include ISDS provisions in TPP and TTIP – which combined, cover more than 60 per cent of global GDP – will result in an exponential rise in ISDS claims, where taxpayers are forced to shoulder the cost of the risks associated with foreign direct investment.

In response to the Europe-wide outcry against the proposed inclusion of ISDS in TTIP, the European Commission issued a ‘fact-sheet’ on October 13, 2013 that claims US investors may not want to bring an action against an EU member state in that state’s national courts, “because it might think they are biased or lack independence”.

An Australian ISDS lawyer, Sam Luttrell, offered a similarly lame justification for why investors would be reluctant to sign trade deals with Australia without an ISDS mechanism on ABC radio in September 2014 – arguing that foreign investors would be wary because Australia has a legal system based on case law, because it’s a federation, and because there’s a “perception” that investors will be discriminated against in Australian courts on the grounds of their nationality. But Australia’s Productivity Commission, hardly a beacon of protectionism, found in a 2010 report that there is no evidence that ISDS has any significant impact on foreign direct investment into a country.

Regulatory ‘chill’

As objectionable as the socialisation of risk taken by powerful multinational corporations is, the direct power these corporations are seizing over public policy is far more disturbing.

The European Commission’s fact-sheet declares: “Including an ISDS mechanism in an investment agreement will not make it more difficult for the EU or its Member States to pass laws or regulations.” It said the EU is working to ensure that “genuine regulations and laws are consistent with investment agreements”, a statement that begs the question – what exactly is a genuine regulation or law? Does the European Commission get to decide on behalf of member states which laws passed by democratic governments can be maintained and which can be discarded in the interests of multinational investors?

In an attempt to convince EU citizens that member states will retain the right to regulate under TTIP, the fact sheet continues: “A country cannot be compelled to repeal a measure: it always has the option of paying compensation instead.”

Well – that’s reassuring.

Discussing the impact of NAFTA, a former Canadian government official was quoted in The Nation as saying: “I’ve seen the letters from the New York and DC law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation and proposition in the last five years.” These included pharmaceuticals, chemicals, patents and pesticides. “Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day.”

World-leading ISDS lawyer and Essex Court Chambers barrister Toby Landau QC said that this so-called regulatory chill exists “without doubt”, adding that in his role as counsel, “on a number of occasions now I’ve actually been instructed by governments to advise on possible adverse implications or consequences of a particular policy in terms of investor-state cases”.

As to achieving ‘regulatory coherence’ in the new generation of free trade agreements, business associations believe it would save everyone time if they were allowed to just write regulations for governments. In the lead-up to the opening of TTIP negotiations in 2013, the US Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope demanded a seat at the table with regulators “to essentially co-write regulation” in an October 2012 joint statement.

The ISDS provisions that offer the highest success rate for multinationals are the “fair and equitable treatment” commitment and the “minimum standard treatment” guarantee. According to Public Citizen, in 74 per cent of cases where US investors were successful, the fair and equitable treatment provision was used. Both provisions would be extended in TPP according to the Investment chapter that Wikileaks released in March. The chapter shows that under the minimum standard of treatment provisions, a case could be taken against government action that consists of a higher degree of regulation or scrutiny than an investor expected based on its dealing with a previous government.

UNCTAD has calculated that of all known investor-state disputes, 42 per cent were won by the state, 31 per cent were won by the investor, and 27 per cent were settled – typically regarded as a win by the investor in terms of a financial or legislative reward. There is no limit on the amount that can be awarded to a corporation, and the average cost of running a case is $8 million.

So how do these tribunals actually work?

They are ad-hoc tribunals convened by the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) dispute mechanism. Three private lawyers are selected from a roster to arbitrate – one appointed by the investor, one by the state, and one that is agreed by both parties.

They meet in hotels or conference centres for a few days or a week, according to leading US ISDS lawyer – and fierce critic of the system – George Kahale. The proceedings are often kept secret and there are no public disclosure requirements.

Many lawyers alternate between representing major corporations in cases against governments and being ‘judges’ in ISDS tribunals. They do not earn a flat salary, as judges do in most countries, but rather earn more money the more tribunals they sit on. Incredibly, there is no requirement to follow precedent – the findings and the sum awarded are entirely at the discretion of the panel of corporate lawyers.

In its analysis of the leaked Investment chapter of TPP, Public Citizen outlines this extreme conflict of interest: “Since only foreign investors can launch cases and also select one of the three tribunalists, ISDS tribunalists have a structural incentive to concoct fanciful interpretations of foreign investors’ rights and order that they be compensated for breaches of obligations to which signatory governments never agreed.” An investor-friendly tribunalist clearly has a higher chance of being selected by corporations to sit on future tribunals.

Despite the wave of opposition to an ISDS being included in TTIP in Europe, demonstrated in the 150,000 responses received by the public consultation the European Commission was forced to undertake in 2014, the Commission appears determined to include it in the final agreement – with token added “safeguards”, no doubt.

The “safeguards” that were included in the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005 have been replicated in the TPP Investment chapter – but these safeguards have been ignored in practice by the tribunals, which have no appeal mechanism.

Regarded as the economic arm of his administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ aimed at containing the power of China, signing off on TPP is an urgent priority for Obama in the coming months, but it won’t happen unless Fast Track is approved by Congress. Enormous pressure by multinational corporations is being exerted on Democrats to delegate this authority to the President.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership will be followed by TTIP and the US-led Trade in Services Agreement. TISA is an even more secretive agreement aimed at the deregulation and ‘regulatory coherence’ of financial and other services that has been under negotiation between more than 50 countries since 2013.

The three agreements collectively, if signed, will result in a historic and unprecedented transfer of political and policy-making power to multinational corporations. This makes the stakes dizzyingly high for the fate of Fast Track, not only for the populations of TPP countries but for the vast majority of the world’s population that will be affected by this new generation of corporate trade deals.

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.”