BASQUE COUNTRY: Madrid exploits terror fears to deny rights

Issue 

BY URKO AIARTZA

BILBAO — The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the media impact they made, created a climate in which governments around the world — by fanning and exploiting fears of "terrorism" — have been able to implement "security measures" which seriously erode human rights and freedoms. Many governments have passed "anti-terrorist" legislation, which defines "terrorism" to suit their particular domestic and/or international political interests.

Many governments, such as Israel, Colombia and Spain — egged on by the United States and Britain — have seized upon the "war on terror" to justify and legitimise repression against political opposition.

Around the world, special "counter-terrorism" measures to deal with "terrorist" suspects are being introduced, which include the denial of the presumption of innocence, arbitrary detention (including the power to hold suspects incommunicado) and denial of the right to contact a lawyer.

Such powers can pave the way for more severe violations of human rights, such as torture, extrajudicial killings and other crimes. "Anti-terrorism" laws also become an avenue to attack peaceful opposition groups or those with dissenting ideas.

Several movements and organisations, whose work has been public and legal, have been proscribed and included in national or international lists of "terrorist" organisations, without a fair judicial process that would have allowed these organisations to appeal such an inclusion and defend themselves. This has produced flagrant violations of the freedom of thought and expression, as well as the right of association.

As Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders of the United Nations, stated in a September 2002 report: "While spuriously equating legitimate and peaceful advocacy of the right to self-determination with terrorism — however defined — is not a new phenomenon, it is certainly assuming a greater resonance, and human rights defenders working for the realisation of peoples' quests for self-determination are experiencing some of their darkest hours [because they are] under renewed and sustained attack worldwide."

In December 2002, the heads of state and governments of the European Union met in Laeken to adopt a "framework decision" on how to combat terrorism, formulating measures to be adopted by all EU member states. The EU heads decided that a "terrorist" act is one that is "intentionally committed by an individual or a group against one or more countries, their institutions or people with the aim of intimidating them and seriously altering or destroying the political, economic or social structures of those countries".

As well as crimes such as murder, bodily harm, kidnapping or hostage taking and extortion, "terrorist" acts would also include "unlawful seizure of, or damage to, state or government facilities, means of public transport, infrastructure facilities, places of public use and property", "interfering with or disrupting the supply of water, power or other fundamental resource" and "promoting of, supporting of or participation in a terrorist group".

The consequences of this definition are quite clear: a wide range of protest activities, as well as solidarity with liberation movements, would be outlawed as "terrorism" in the EU. The EU meeting also drew up a list of "terrorist" individuals and organisations.

The Spanish state had a crucial role in the formulation of an EU definition of terrorism, which would allow Madrid to present the whole Basque national movement as "terrorist" and endorse Spain's right to implement "anti-terrorist" measures against it.

Under Spain's 2002 anti-terrorist laws, Basque citizens can be accused of being "terrorists" without any evidence and without a fair trial. The laws allow incommunicado detention, paving the way for torture. Spain's anti-terrorist court (the Audiencia Nacional) accepts statements taken under torture as being sufficient to find a suspect guilty. The March 14, 2002, report submitted by the special rapporteur on torture to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Theo van Boben, acknowledged the existence of 58 cases of torture of Basque suspects during 2000.

Under the anti-terrorist law, legal Basque political and social organisations are being accused of being "terrorist" by the Spanish authorities and banned, including the pro-independence Basque parliamentary opposition party Batasuna and more than 240 Basque organisations. The right-wing Spanish government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar accused the nationalist groups of being "the political wing" of the armed group ETA.

In March, Spain's Supreme Court approved a government request to ban Batasuna permanently. In June, the EU added Batasuna to its list of terrorist organisations at the request of the Spanish government. Inclusion on the list obliges all EU countries to co-operate with Spanish officials investigating or prosecuting the party. It also converts supporters of the party in Europe into "terrorists". The US added Batasuna to its list of terrorist organisations in May.

In September, the Basque regional government in Spain challenged Batasuna's ban in the European Court of Human Rights. The Basque government argues that the law violates the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, especially the convention's articles on the right to a fair trial and freedom of association.

[Urko Aiartza is an attorney and a member of Eskubideak, the Basque Lawyers Association.]

From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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