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 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.”

Leaders’ arrests fail to silence Basque independence movement

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

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

Published in An Phoblacht on 22 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnaldo Otegi

Arnaldo Otegi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basque anti-extradition campaign launched in Belfast

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

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

Published in An Phoblacht on 11 June 2009

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

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

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

Iñaki de Juana

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

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

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

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

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

Arturo ‘Beñat’ Villanueva

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political persecution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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