Witnessing the Catalan referendum firsthand

Below is an account of the visit by an international parliamentary delegation of 33 elected representatives and a number of their advisors to Catalonia, hosted by DiploCat, during the Catalan referendum. While the delegation programme lasted for several days, this account covers only Sunday October 1, polling day. This is not a political analysis of the Catalan referendum but my personal account of what we witnessed.

I left my hotel at 7am on Sunday morning to meet up with the international parliamentary group and our DiploCat hosts. It was still completely dark and pouring rain but I knew thousands of people would have been gathered outside polling stations since 5am to defend them from police attempts to shut them down, which had been rumoured the day before to be scheduled to begin at 5am or 6am.

The international visitors were scheduled to leave in 10 small groups from a central meeting point at 7.30am. I was in a group with Sinn Féin Senator Trevor O’Clochartaigh, Swedish Green MEP Bodil Valero, Welsh member of the Westminster Parliament for Plaid Cymru, Hywel Williams, and Magni Arge, a member of the Faroe Islands and Danish Parliaments for the left pro-independence Republic party. We spent the day with our helpful DiploCat host, a young woman called Irina.

The official plan was to visit three or four polling stations in Barcelona and the surrounding towns; meet the mayor of Solsona for lunch at 1pm; then return to Barcelona by 4pm.

Sarrià-Sant Gervasi

Our first stop was a polling station at a school (Col·legi Orlandai) in the Barcelona suburb of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, close to Gràcia, where two of the international groups, or around 10 observers altogether, arrived at 8am. It was bright by then and the rain stopped temporarily. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the school, whose entrance gates were closed. They cheered when we arrived, seeing our ‘international observer’ lanyards.

Approaching the first school at Sant Gervasi

Approaching the polling station at Sarrià-Sant Gervasi

Two uniformed members of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan autonomous police, stood at the edge of the crowd and observed.

We started to speak to some of the voters gathered, sometimes in English and sometimes having the conversation translated by Irina or by Bodil from Sweden, who has fluent Catalan. They said the Mossos had earlier informed them they had been instructed to prevent voting, but that they did not intend to, in the interests of protecting public order and public safety.

Trevor suggested we speak to the officers. I hesitated for a second, not being a big fan of police, having both experienced and witnessed police violence at peaceful public gatherings and rallies on several occasions. But we went over to introduce ourselves. Both were polite and friendly, and chatted comfortably with us in English. One of them, finding out Trevor and I were Irish, told us he had lived in Dublin for close to a year. I asked if it was okay if I took a photo of them speaking to Trevor and they replied, “Of course it is”.


Sinn Féin Senator Trevor O’Clochartaigh chats with the two Mossos officers at Sarrià-Sant Gervasi

Some of the assembled voters told us the majority of the crowd had been there since 5am, and that the school was one of those that had been occupied since Friday afternoon. The parents of the kids who attended the school had slept inside the school building on the Friday and Saturday nights. There were three or four young women half-asleep on thin mattresses just outside the building, under the shelter of an overhanging roof. People carefully stepped over them, as did we.

Just then, at around 8.15am or so, the parents began to exit the school building into the waiting crowd, carrying their mattresses and sleeping bags, to cheers and applause.

Internet shut down

Some of the organisers then invited us to come inside the school, and we squeezed through the voters to walk through the gate. The front rooms were set up with desks for ballot papers and ballot boxes, and around a dozen volunteers were working intently on computers and laptops. Voting was due to begin at 9am but their electronic electoral system was down and the entire internet seemed to be down too.

I tried to get online on my phone when inside the school and couldn’t – sometimes my phone would say  ‘No service’ but even when it didn’t, I was still unable to use the internet. I couldn’t get online for hours that morning. It was the same for the other visitors, though some of them seemed to be able to get online for two or three minutes at a time. Outside, one of the organisers called on the voters to all switch their phones onto airplane mode in the vain hope that it was a capacity overload problem, a request everyone quickly and willingly cooperated with.

Someone told us the polling station staff were attempting to get online by using a Belgian proxy; it didn’t work though. We heard through text messages that not only the electronic voting system was down, as was expected, but the entire internet was down at a number of other voting stations too. “Do you think it’s the Spanish government that’s responsible?” I asked one of the frazzled volunteers. She looked at me as though I were a moron and said, “Of course it is.” We both had to laugh.

The voters outside were patient and cooperative, occasionally breaking into chants of “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote!). We could see each other through the gates; organisers outside communicated constantly with those inside, and passed phones, coffees and mini-pastries through to the volunteers. Bodil did an interview with a Swedish journalist holding a recorder through one of the gaps in the gate.


Voters wait in the rain

When it rained, the voters shared large umbrellas through the crowd. At one stage an organiser was lifted on top of someone’s shoulders to call on the voters to clear a path for the elderly, people with special needs and people who had to go to work that day to be able to come up to the front and vote first. Two older women were brought into the school building so they could sit down; an elderly, frail man refused the offer of coming inside and continued to stand outside at the front of the queue using his umbrella to help support himself.

It was at that point that texts began to come through saying there had been attacks by riot police on other polling stations in Barcelona, including some that were close-by.

Shortly before 9am, the two Mossos officers entered the school building, with voters clearing a path for them. They asked the volunteers to assemble so they could speak to them all together. The international visitors hung back but within hearing distance, and Irina and Bodil translated for us.

The Mossos informed the workers that the National Police was attempting to close several polling stations in Barcelona. They repeated what they had told us and the voters earlier; that they had been instructed to prevent the vote from proceeding, but that they were not going to, as their intention was to act in the interests of preserving peace, public safety and public order. They added that if the Spanish police arrived, they would not be able to intervene, but that they would try to act as mediators between the Spanish police and organisers.

Mossos talk to organisers inside

The Mossos officers talk to polling station workers

One of the Mossos then approached the seated older women, crouching down to ask if they were feeling okay, and offered them water. Then they left through the gates, to applause.

The first votes

The volunteers resumed working to resolve the internet problem. I remarked to one of them that the voters assembled outside were incredibly patient, waiting for hours in the rain; no-one was acting annoyed or frustrated at the fact that the polling station was still closed at 10.30, an hour and a half after it was scheduled to open. “They have been waiting their whole lives to vote,” she said. “They don’t mind waiting a little longer.” But anxiety about the possibility of a police attack was growing.

The polling station workers thought that if they had computers with older technology they may be able to connect to a wifi system – so people outside ran home to bring in two or three old laptops and an old PC, which they passed through the gates. At around 10.40am a cheer went up inside the building and we all started clapping – it had worked! They were connected.

One man inside excitedly ran to inform the others, through the gate, that they were connected to the internet and voting was about to begin. “I’m going to be the first to vote!” he yelled excitedly, to laughter. The two elderly women and a handful of others inside took up their ballot papers and voted.

Elderly woman casts her vote

One of the women who came inside to sit down casts her vote

Then the gates opened and the first round of people walked through. Everyone was cheering and applauding jubilantly – the voters outside, the workers inside, us international visitors.


The faces of those who came through were still calm and resolute but some became tearful after they voted. It was a really moving moment, and it’s hard to accurately put it in words. The best way I can describe it to say there was an overwhelming sense of dignity about both the moment and the people.

As the voting got underway, our DiploCat hosts organised the two groups to start moving to our next location; we had been scheduled to leave shortly after 9am but had decided to stay until the station opened. The voters lined up outside the school cheered us and said “Thank you!” in English as we left.

At Manresa

We started driving to Manresa, an industrial province of around 75,000 people in the centre of Catalonia, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. We had already seen a small number of videos on Twitter of police seizing ballot boxes and beating voters with batons in the brief moments where anyone could connect to the internet in the polling station at Sarrià-Sant Gervasi.

Now we spent the journey uploading our own photos, footage and observations from the morning onto social media, and passing around phones between the seats so we could all view the latest footage of the police attacks – gasping, murmuring “Oh my god,” and exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” as the snippets of film from the other polling stations showed increasingly brutal violence and rubber bullets being fired into defenceless and panicking crowds. It was not just the National Police we saw in the footage anymore but also the Guardia Civil. Hywel was uploading live videos in Welsh to Twitter, describing our visit.

When we arrived in Manresa centre around 11.30am we stopped for a coffee for a few minutes and stood at the bar with our eyes glued to the TV which was, of course, broadcasting the footage from the polling stations. The building in the square were adorned with colourful flags saying “Sí!” and “Democràcia!”, like in Barcelona, and it had stopped raining entirely. Then we walked to a polling station, a school, where the people queuing outside again cheered as we approached. There were still large crowds waiting to vote as we entered at around noon, and spoke to the polling station workers. The National Police had not arrived at the station; the queues were orderly and  the mood bright. Two Mossos stood outside.

Voters queue in Manresa

Voters queue up outside one of the polling stations in Manresa

One of the polling station volunteers offered to walk us around to the second voting station open in Manresa centre, which was nearby, and we agreed. During the walk the volunteer said worriedly to our DiploCat guide, Irina, that the route we were taking to the second site wouldn’t show us the best side of Manresa; Irina translated her concerns while laughing kindly. Relaxing, the local volunteer then joked that we were walking down “Las Ramblas” of Manresa.

This station, too, was busy, but calm and orderly, having received no visit from the National Police or Guardia Civil. Each polling station had a ‘president’ – a coordinator or presiding officer. Many of the volunteers were wearing stickers that identified them as both activists of the ANC (National Assembly of Catalonia) and also of ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia). I spoke to the president at this site in English for some time about how the day had unfolded, and he outlined the same difficulties with their voting system and internet access that we had experienced early in the morning.

I asked him if he was a member of any political party as I was curious as to whether the volunteers were all affiliated to political parties or whether there were also unaffiliated community members and activists. Almost apologetically, he said he wasn’t a political activist, but worked in IT – and that his mother, an ANC activist, had called him the night before to say they needed people with technological expertise as they anticipated hacking attacks. “So here I am,” he smiled.

Baby on shoulders Manresa

Voters wait their turn to enter the polling station in Manresa

As we left, the crowd queuing outside applauded and started chanting “Thank you! Thank you!”. By this stage we had asked Irina to teach us how to say “Good luck” in Catalan, so we replied “Bona sort!” as we left. I grinned to hear a man in the queue describe us as “briagdistas internacionales” as we walked past; he and his friends laughed and waved goodbye.

Waiting in dread at Sant Joan de Vilatorrada

Irina told us there were fears of a nearby polling station being attacked so we drove to another school at Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, just a few minutes from Manresa centre. The atmosphere was different here, subdued. People queued outside, but quietly. There was no cheering.

Inside, the volunteers told us that the polling station had been attacked violently by the Spanish police that morning, before it had even opened. Witnesses told us that the National Police had used a battering ram to enter, and smashed a man’s finger in the door four times, crushing the bone and severing the tendons. They took the ballot papers, boxes and began attacking the voters outside.

A teenage girl explained to us that her and some other voters had run up to the two Mossos present and asked them to do something; they said they couldn’t intervene but called their superior officer who arrived and had a heated argument with his counterpart in the National Police, after which the Spanish police withdrew. The injured man had left hours earlier to get medical attention so we couldn’t speak to him.

On the lookout for police at Sant Joan

Voters wait anxiously following rumours the police were planning to return to the school they had attacked that morning

The organisers and locals were anxiously expecting the National Police to return – they had received encrypted WhatsApp messages from organisers and activists at nearby stations and on nearby roads who reported they had seen around 60 Spanish police officers in the area. The locals knew they didn’t have the numbers to resist another entry attempt by police. We walked up to a perimeter fence that voters and activists had gathered by, all of us peering through warily. An enormous cheer went up as a number of uniformed firefighters walked up the hill together to the school.

Firefighters talking to us by Bodil

The firefighters who outlined the situation to us. Photo by Bodil Valero.

We spoke to the firefighters and others for around an hour, waiting for the police to arrive, but they never did. One firefighter in particular spoke to us at length, describing his view of the general situation. “I’m not very political,” he said. “But we just want to vote. It’s simple.”

Then we heard through WhatsApp messages that the Guardia Civil had attacked another polling station just a five-minute walk away. The firefighters sprinted off down the road as a handful of teenage boys sprinted off another way, obviously knowing a short-cut. Irina said we should think carefully about whether we wanted to try to catch up with the police, but we all quickly agreed we did.

‘I had my hands up’

Our driver zipped us around to the school that was under attack and we arrived to scenes of lines of around 20 Guardia Civil officers jostling voters who had their arms raised. Several Mossos and firefighters formed a line of their own in between the voters and the Guardia Civil.

The people were peaceful but angrily chanting, “No passaran!”, “Catalunya! Catalunya!”. After a tense and angry standoff of around 15 minutes, the police backed off and left.

We were on the street, and couldn’t see the school building through the crowd, so I misunderstood the situation we had walked into. I thought the Guardia Civil had arrived, realised they were heavily outnumbered, and decided to leave. But that’s not what happened – we had got there too late.

They had already smashed down the glass doors of the polling station, seized the ballot boxes and beat a 70-year-old man over the head with a baton – just because he was in the process of voting. As the Guardia Civil left, he was sitting outside being cared for by other voters.

(Below is footage from @QuicoSalles on Twitter of what happened in the moments before we arrived.)

We had all been separated, but the same teenage girl who had spoken to us at the previous school had come running up to find one of the international observers – my Sinn Féin colleague Trevor – who went and spoke to and filmed the injured man. He had had his head split by the baton. “I had my hands up,” he said. “I was voting, I had my hands up.”

We jumped back in the car based on more WhatsApp messages and tried to get to the next site we believed was going to being targeted before the police did, around five minutes away. People were gathered outside anxiously and some were clearly in shock, having arrived from the same polling station we had just come from.

I spoke in English to a teenage boy wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and told him we had just come from the school. White-faced and shaking, he said he had been inside the polling station with his grandfather when the Guardia Civil had burst in and started hitting people with batons. Every few words he would almost choke, finding it hard to speak. “I need to go home,” he said after telling us what he saw.

The firefighter who we had earlier befriended at the first school we had visited in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada came up to us and told us that the organisers had just shut the polling station voluntarily in order to try to prevent an attack. They wanted to protect people from violence and also protect the ballots they had from being seized. It was around 3.30pm. He told us of their standoff with the Guardia Civil and said that like us, the firefighters had arrived too late to do anything to prevent the attack.

“But the fact that you guys and the Mossos got there stopped them from beating the voters on the street after they had taken the ballots,” Magni, the Faroese visitor, said.

The firefighter wasn’t going to be consoled. “Now they are laughing at us,” he said, meaning it both literally – the Guardia Civil had taunted and laughed at them during the stand-off – and figuratively, as in, they had left with people’s votes. He said the words with such a sense of powerlessness and humiliation that, for me, it was the lowest point of all that we observed that day.

As people began to disperse after the closure of the polling station we got back in the car; one of the volunteers had suggested we could drive to the local Spanish police station to see it, perhaps to try to speak with some of the officers. A number of roads were closed, though, so we couldn’t get there.

We saw one of the empty roads closed off by Guardia Civil vehicles and Hywel wanted to go and speak to them and take photos. I told the others that our phones might be confiscated if we tried to take photos because of the (2015) Spanish gag law that, among many other restrictions, banned taking photos of police officers. We all left our phones in the car and walked down to around eight officers who were blocking the road with large vehicles. Bodil translated our questions for them and their responses. She asked why the road was blocked; they replied that it was because someone had been taking photos of the police, which was illegal.

“Because of the gag law,” Bodil replied, provoking protest at the phrase. They said they were “just doing their job”, but then moved one of their vehicles to clear the blockade of the road. We weren’t going that way anyway, so, to the confusion of the Guardia Civil, drove off in the opposite direction.

At Solsona

We had been due to have lunch with the mayor of the town of Solsona at 1pm and were now at least three hours late. Irina insisted that we had to eat something, so we set off further inland to Solsona, another 45 minutes or so away, though I think it’s safe to say all of us had lost our appetites. Back in the car we took turns charging our phones, and passed around the phones in use to see the latest images and footage of attacks at the polling stations. Hywel delightedly informed us that his press officer told him he was trending on Twitter in Wales due to the updates and images he had been sharing all day, which lifted our spirits a little.

festival atmosphere

Voters gather outside in tents and with music playing at Solsona

We arrived at the main polling station in Solsona, a town of around 9,000 people in the province of Lleida, at close to 5pm. The mayor, David Rodríguez, and others came out to welcome us. As well as being the mayor of Solsona, David is also a member of the Catalan Parliament for the ERC, the Republican Left of Catalonia. The polling station was striking for how well organised it was.

Two massive tractors formed the main part of a barricade at the entrance of the centre, and another tractor blocked off a smaller way in on the footpath. You could still enter, but only on foot. There were very large crowds of people gathered on a grassy area outside of the building in a sort of festival atmosphere with some music and tents, and several firefighters, who got an enthusiastic round of applause every time they waked from one place to another.

Tractor barricades

Tractors forming barricades at Solsona

The polling station itself was a large gymnasium-style building. The volunteers inside were on edge and were expecting police to arrive shortly. They were preparing to shut down the station and hide the ballot boxes at the first sign of a raid.

I spoke to one of the volunteers, a young man, at length about their high level of organisation. “We don’t think they will be able to get in,” he said. “We think the doors and walls are strong enough to keep them out, none are made from glass. The only way they could get in is if they use vehicles to smash through the walls.” He paused, realising the absurdity of it, and shook his head, saying, “It’s so strange to talk like this, of vehicles smashing through walls. It’s like a war.”

Trevor with David

Trevor O’Clochartaigh with Solsona Mayor and ERC MP in the Catalan Parliament, David Rodríguez

He explained to me that they believed there were enough hiding places in the building that they could temporarily hide the ballot boxes if the police managed to enter. They had taken the step of stuffing two ballot boxes with empty envelopes and “hiding” them in an easy-to-find spot.

I laughed at the ingenuity. Everywhere we had visited, people were dealing with the problems they faced collectively, with great creativity and even with humour.

David asked us to come and have lunch at a Japanese restaurant, a couple of minutes’ walk away. We were reluctant to leave as people were expecting the arrival of the Guardia Civil, but he assured us we would all return immediately if we heard any reports of their arrival.

He introduced us to the owner of the restaurant, who greeted us warmly and told us he had moved from Japan to Solsona 27 years ago. Then for 30 rather surreal minutes we ate sushi and talked across the table, finishing with more coffee. The owner’s son, around seven years old  and playing outside in an FC Barcelona jersey, kept running up to the window to wave excitedly at us. We grinned and waved back.

David led us back in to the polling station and on the way back I spoke to a young woman who was shortly due to sit examinations to become a judge. She thought there was a good chance that her role in assisting the local referendum process would destroy her chances of becoming a judge, and said that one of her fellow students was too scared to even vote for the same reason. “But it’s worth it,” she said. Having done countless all-nighters for law exams myself I was left in awe.

David told us the organisers were still on stand-by to shut down the polling station. One of our group remarked to him that it must be a difficult decision – to close the polling station early before everyone had had the chance to vote.

“No,” he replied firmly. “There is no question. Our responsibility is to protect these people from violence. If we have to close the voting station early, even if the votes are stolen, the people here will be safe.”

We were scheduled to meet with the rest of the international delegation at 8.30pm to prepare a joint statement about the conditions in which the referendum was held, and both Magni and Bodil needed to get back to Barcelona to do media interviews before that time, so we began the drive back. Irina asked the rest of us if we wanted to take a break or visit another voting site, and Trevor suggested we go to the Josep-Maria Jujol school in central Barcelona – which both of us had visited during the occupation the day earlier. Trevor had also visited it at around 6am that morning and wanted to see how they had survived the day.

Back in Barcelona

There was a huge number of people gathered outside the school, possibly a couple of thousand, and they cheered loudly when we entered. “Gracias, bona sort!” we called back. It was around 7.30pm and they had been undisturbed all day – in my view, because they had the numbers required to deter any police intervention. Excitement was rising that they would manage to make it to 8pm, the end of voting time, without a police attack. Two Mossos walked around the entrance and they too were cheered.

A political scientist who taught at one of the Barcelona universities was the president of the polling station and showed us how they had been dealing with the technological problems in order to ensure the highest electoral standards were maintained.

At Jujol

The polling station president (centre) and other volunteers  speak to the international guests at Escola Josep-Maria Jujol

“We had people changing our IP addresses every 30 minutes to try to stay ahead of the hackers,” he explained. “If the system was down at any particular moment, we would mark people off on the paper electoral roll but put an asterix next to their name. Then when it was up and running again we would enter their names into the electronic system. So there may have been periods of up to 20 minutes at most where the system was down, but it would be virtually impossible for a person to vote twice at different polling stations in that time due to the queues.”

Inside the polling station I ran into a number of Basque friends who were visiting Barcelona in a show of solidarity. I joked darkly to them that they must have felt the same way right then as Irish republicans did when the DUP formed a coalition with the British Conservatives earlier this year – for a brief moment the world’s media attention shone a light on problems and outrageous behaviour that we struggle constantly to draw attention to. Of course this was on an even bigger scale. They laughed in grim agreement.

The author Liz Castro was also at the school, and interviewed Trevol, Hywel and I about what we had observed as we waited for 8pm. She tried to broadcast it live on Twitter’s Periscope feature, but the internet was too patchy, so she filmed it to upload later instead. At about 7.59pm a rumour spread through the building that the police were coming to seize the ballot boxes, causing a brief moment of panic. A minute later we were assured by the tense polling station president that the rumour was false.

Celebrating keeping the polling station open

At 8pm, a huge cry of celebration went up in the crowd outside and they began to sing the Catalan national anthem. They had made it to 8pm without an attack. The school gates were closed as they sang the final bars. (You can watch my video of this here.)

Inside, photographers and media camera crews filmed the two young electoral officers who began the official count of the ballots.

Officials start the count

Electoral officers begin the count at Escola Josep-Maria Jujol

I asked the volunteers if they had heard of any plans for mobilisations in Barcelona that evening, saying we had heard that there would be demonstrations in several cities in the Spanish state against police brutality.

“I’m not a political activist,” the polling station president replied, “so I can’t tell you about the mobilisations outside. My role, and one I take very seriously, is to facilitate the vote of the people here today and to defend those votes. But I can say that as a political scientist, the mobilisation of Catalan society is something that is fascinating to see and something that will not disappear overnight. Of course we can’t keep up this level of mobilisation constantly,” he said as other exhausted volunteers gathered around him nodded in agreement, “but this movement is not going anywhere.”

As we left to get to our meeting with the rest of the international delegation, we walked out behind the electoral workers. The people who had defended the polling station all day – and all weekend in fact, for many – again applauded us. You guys are the ones who deserve the applause, we kept saying as we shook their hands. I don’t think I’ve ever made such an understatement in my life.




What Spain’s King means when he calls for the Constitution to be upheld

This is a brief outline of some of the key relevant legal issues in the Spanish Constitution and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union in relation to the crisis in Catalonia.

The King of Spain made a speech tonight (October 3) which is seriously concerning. The notes below are not intended to address the fascinating political situation in Catalonia right now, but simply aim to outline some of the key legal issues and constitutional articles you may have heard bandied about regarding the Spanish Constitution and the EU Treaty.

Speech by King Felipe

Leaving aside his description of Catalans as being “unacceptably disloyal”, and his failure to condemn the violence on Sunday, King Felipe VI made repeated calls on the Spanish government to act. He stated repeatedly that the duty of the Spanish state is to uphold the Constitution, and to ensure the constitutional basis for Catalonia and its institutions.

The Spanish Constitution (adopted in 1978 during the so-called “Transition” from Francoist fascism) includes several relevant and well-known articles – namely Articles 2, 8 and 155 – which have led Catalans and observers to believe this amounts to a call for the suspension of the Catalan government at the very least; the likely imposition of a state of exception (emergency); or an outright military coup at worst.

Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution affirms the “indissoluble unity” of “the Spanish nation”.

Article 8 states it is the mission of the Armed Forces to “defend the territorial integrity” of Spain. Usually, in the international arena, this means defending the state from external attack, but in the Spanish state is has been interpreted politically and legally to mean defending the state from both invasion and secession.

The United Nation’s Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable Social Order, Alfred De Zayas, yesterday tweeted: “The principle of territorial integrity protects States from other States, but cannot prohibit the self-determination of peoples”.

And Article 155, the most important in this case, states that if any of the autonomous communities fail to meet their obligations under the law and Constitution,  or “act in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain”, the Government can control of the bodies of the autonomous government and impose  the “measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above mentioned general interests” of the Spanish state.

In other words, Article 155 is the Direct Rule provision. Of course, the suspension of the Catalan government in this way would probably have to be backed up by jailing the government representatives, and the likely mass deployment of the Guardia Civil, and possibly troops, given the mass mobilisation of Catalan society.

To me the King’s speech sounded very much like an indication that Art 155 will be triggered. The leader of Ciudadanos has already called for Art 155 to be triggered in order to prevent a declaration of independence by the Catalan government.

The Catalan government has not yet declared independence following the results of Sunday’s vote. Obviously they must be engaged in behind the scenes efforts with the international community in particular, but they run the risk their government will be suspended before the declaration.

Tonight Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told the BBC that the Catalan government will declare independence “at the end of this week or the beginning of next”.

Sanctioning of EU Member State under EU Treaty

The other issue I wanted to reflect on is the possibility to initiate action against Spain under the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) in response to Sunday’s violence, or in response to the possible future triggering of Art 155 of the Spanish constitution/a state of exception/martial law being imposed in Catalonia.

Some Catalan representatives and international supporters have called for the triggering of Article 7 of the TFEU against Spain in response to the violence in Catalonia.

This is definitely something European progressives should call for in relation to both their own governments and the European Parliament.

However, the EU procedure is designed to be so difficult and to require such a strong majority that it makes it virtually meaningless (surprise).

It has never yet been invoked, despite the possibility of it being raised in relation to Hungary and Poland recently.

Article 7 can be invoked in order to defend the “EU values” specified in Article 2 of the TFEU.

These are: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

Article 7 has three stages of procedure ending in sanctions:

1) A procedure to declare the existence of a clear risk of a “serious breach” of Article 2 values. The procedure must be invoked by a “reasoned proposal” by either: one-third of Member States/the European Parliament/the Commission.

So a call for the European Parliament to make a reasoned proposal is definitely an option; as is a call for the Irish government or other EU governments to make such a reasoned proposal to the Council and seek the support for at least one third of Member States.

Then the Council, acting by a majority of 4/5 of its members, and after getting European Parliament consent, “may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2”.

Before making such a determination, the Council will allow the relevant Member State to respond, and may propose recommendations to the State.

2) The second phase is a procedure to determine whether a “serious and persistent breach” of Article 2 values has occurred. This requires the Commission or one-third of Member States to call on the Council to declare unanimously that a breach has occurred, with the European Parliament’s consent.

This is where the process goes from unlikely to virtually impossible given the strong backing of the Spanish position by both conservative and social-democratic forces in power across the EU.

3) The third step is sanctions. If the conditions of (1) and (2) are met, the Council can suspend rights of the relevant Member State with a qualified majority, which includes suspending the Member State’s voting rights in Council.

Let me finish by reiterating the point above – that despite the legal obstacles, progressives should absolutely attempt to invoke Article 7 of the TFEU.

But the limitations on progressive actions imposed by the EU’s architecture, treaties and procedures are similar to the limitations of achieving progressive change under the Spanish Constitution.

We certainly can’t rely in the slightest on the legal or procedural mechanisms of the EU in order to effectively display solidarity with the Catalan struggle for self-determination.

We need to do this with the tried and tested methods of old – pressuring our governments and EU leaders to support the Catalan people by all available means, including by exerting maximum pressure on the streets, and in local, state, EU and international political institutions; and by pressuring national governments to summon Spanish ambassadors and to suspend diplomatic ties with Madrid.



Article 2

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards; it recognises and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, and the solidarity amongst them all

Article 8

1. The mission of the Armed Forces, comprising the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain and to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order.

Article 155

1. If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests.


Article 2

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Article 7

1.   On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2.

Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure.

The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2.   The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2, after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3.   Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4.   The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The leader of the Basque peace process’

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his December 2008 report, then-UN Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, Martin Scheinin, said the Law on Political Parties defined terrorism so vaguely that it “might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives” as those pursued an armed group.

Commenting on the law against “glorifying terrorism” in the same report, Professor Scheinin said the law “should include the requirements of an intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, as well as the existence of an actual risk that such an offence will be committed as a consequence”.

Political sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bateragune Five

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

Arnaldo Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi

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

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

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

Five years of provocation

At the time of Otegi’s arrest in 2009, a Batasuna spokesperson responded by saying: “The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A convenient conflict?

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

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

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

In an interview from jail with Mexico’s La Jornada, Otegi said in December 2013: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for Spain, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basque Country: Dealing with the consequences of the conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels Declaration

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

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

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

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

A definitive end to armed activity

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

The Declaration consisted of five recommendations that called on ETA to implement a definitive cessation of armed activity and request negotiations with the Spanish and French governments; and urged the governments to respond positively to such a request and put in place a process of addressing the consequences of the conflict. three days later, ETA announced a “definitive cessation” of armed activity.

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

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

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

Addressing the needs of victims

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

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

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

Refusal to engage in disarmament process ‘incomprehensible’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political prisoners are the key to achieving peace

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

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

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

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

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

Dispersal – an inhumane, colonial-era penal policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe has a responsibility to help break this deadlock

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prisoners and peace-making in the Basque Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jailed for opinions and activism

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

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

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

Exceptional measures

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

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

Arkaitz Bellón

Arkaitz Bellón

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

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

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

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

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

Extending prisoners’ sentences

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

The doctrine, which was applied retroactively, meant remission for Basque political prisoners jailed before the introduction of the current penal code in 1995 could be granted on prisoners’ original full sentences instead of the 30-year maximum term. This effectively imposed life sentences. Parot was applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when the ECHR ruled it was a human rights violation on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain changes the rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solidarity itself criminalised

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

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

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

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

Published on basquepeaceprocess.info on 11 March, 2014

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

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

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

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

Four decades of conflict

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

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

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

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

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

Unilateralism and provocation

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

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

On 13 October 2009, as the Abertzale Left leadership met to discuss activating the initiative that would lead to ETA’s permanent ceasefire, 10 leading activists were arrested – five of them in a police raid on the headquarters of the LAB trade union in Donostia/San Sebastian. Pro-independence political leader Arnaldo Otegi, LAB former general secretary Rafa Diez and three others were jailed by Judge Baltasar Garzon for at least six years on charges of attempting to reconstitute the leadership of banned political party Batasuna “on the orders of ETA”. Batasuna released a statement saying: “The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country.”


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


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

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

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

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

Prisoners – key to peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical moment in Basque conflict resolution

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Kattalina Madriagia speaking at the Sinn Féin are fheis

Published in An Phoblacht on 5 April 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

International role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Time for leadership’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basque youth activist interviewed

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Published by Sinn Féin Republican Youth in November 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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