Basque Country: Huge rally for Basque political prisoners

More than 100,000 people march in Bilbao in support of the rights of Basque political prisoners.

An estimated 115,000 people marched in Bilbao, in the Basque Country in the north of the Spanish state, on January 12, undeterred by pouring rain and near-freezing conditions. Protesters demanded the repatriation to the Basque Country of hundreds of Basque political prisoners held by the Spanish state.

Bilbao, the major city in the Biscay region of Basque Country has hosted the march annually. But it has only been since the unilateral ceasefire of armed Basque pro-independence group ETA in October 2011, and the legalisation of the left-nationalist party Bildu ( in the same year did that the marches have grown to success a huge size.

This year's march also featured solidarity contingents from countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, Catalonia (where there is a strong movement for independence from Spain) and Australia.

Colourful promo video for the January 12 march, featuring mix of traditional, punk and other music styles.

The march slogan, “Human Rights, Resolution, and Peace: Basque Prisoners to Basque Country”, was a clear response to the Spanish state’s ongoing policy of using imprisonment and exile to harass the Basque independence movement.

Contravening its own penal code, the Spanish state has dispersed more than 600 Basque political prisoners across jails throughout Spain to make collective and solidarity action by prisoners and supporters difficult. Families of prisoners have been harassed en route to prisons, sentences are routinely extended, and 14 seriously ill prisoners have been denied release.

Jose, brother of prisoner Gotzone Lopez de Luzuriaga Fernendez, spoke to Green Left Weekly about his sister’s case the day before her birthday: “My sister has spent twenty three years in jail far from family and friends. She has been moved through five different prisons outside Pais Vasco to make it difficult for us to visit and support her."

In 2007 Gotzone was diagnosed with incurable cancer.

“She was receiving treatment in a civilian hospital where I was able to visit,” said Jose. ”While I was visiting, the government threw me out and moved her in a military hospital where treatment is worse and where we can't visit.”

Video promoting the march for prisoner rights.

ETA's demobilisation has opened up new political space in the Basque Country. After an extensive legal battle in 2011, the leftist coalition BH Bildu gained legal status and achieved spectacular results in local and state elections. In October, it won nearly 26% of the vote.

A spokesperson for Alternativa, one of the groups in coalition, emphasised to Green Left that the role of the party is to work with, not supplant, the social movements. The coalition, the spokesperson said, “stands for peace and a solution to the problem of violence in the Basque Country, social justice, Basque language and to fight against racism and xenophobia”.

As is the case in Catalonia, a majority of seats in the Basque parliament now belong to parties favouring an independent Basque Country. However, the Basque nationalist right party, PNV, has allied with the anti-independence forces to form government and is not supporting any moves towards self determination. The PNV views Bildu as a political opponent and did not support this year’s march, with no noticeable effect on attendance.

Despite ETA's permanent ceasefire, political repression continues. This includes persecutions and prison sentences for the crime of “exhaltating terrorism”, or displaying photos of political prisoners in demonstrations. Five young people were jailed in June last year on such charges.

Left-wing groups and organising centres, including bars and cultural centres, are commonly raided and vandalised by police on the pretext of removing photos. The Spanish state continues to define any referendum on self-determination as illegal and unconstitutional.

With the economic crisis intensifying, the Spanish state continues to lose credibility throughout the whole population. The January 12 march demonstrated a level of militancy that will not be easily demobilised.