Huge Basque rallies against Spanish repression

A march in Bilbao on January 10 protesting against human rights abuses of Basque prisoners by the Spanish state.

An estimated 33,000 people marched through the Basque city of Donostia on January 17 to protest ongoing Spanish state repression against civil rights activists and lawyers in the Basque Country.

Marching under a large banner reading “Human Rights, Resolution, Peace”, the demonstration included members of the Basque pro-independence left coalition EH Bildu, trade unions and supporters of Basque political prisoners.

The mass protest was a response to arrests carried out by the Guardia Civil (Spain’s heavily politicised military police) on January 12 throughout the Basque Country, Nafaroa and Madrid.

Twelve Basque lawyers were arrested, as well as four people allegedly linked to the banned prisoners’ supporters group Herrira. Police searched premises across Spain, including those of the left-nationalist Basque trade union Nationalist Workers' Committee (LAB) in Bilbao. More than 90,000 euros in legal donations to prisoner rights' campaigns were confiscated.

Those detained were charged with tax fraud, money laundering and membership of a terrorist group. Thirteen of those arrested were soon released on bail, but are barred from leaving the country or communicating with prisoners.

Spain's interior ministry has also accused them of passing instructions from the banned pro-independence group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) to jailed ETA members.

ETA ends armed campaign

Over the past four decades, ETA waged an armed campaign against the Spanish state for an independent socialist Basque homeland that cost more than 800 lives. In 2011, however, ETA unilaterally declared a “permanent cessation” of all armed activity. It began decommissioning its weapons early last year, supervised by the independent International Verification Commission.

Despite moves by ETA and other Basque pro-independence groups to seek a peaceful resolution to the Basque conflict, Spanish state repression has continued unabated.

The Spanish government continues to demand nothing less than ETA's unconditional surrender. Spain uses ETA's existence to deliberately undermine any democratic movements for Basque independence ― declaring peaceful activism to be linked to “terrorism” ― and to justify ongoing violations of human rights in the Basque Country.

Repression continues

Since 1998, the Spanish courts have taken the view that “everything that surrounds ETA is ETA”, effectively criminalising all advocates for Basque independence.

Since the introduction of the Law of Political Parties in 2002, several pro-independence political parties and civil society organisations have been declared illegal and forcibly disbanded, despite having no connection to ETA.

Freedom of speech has also fallen victim to Spain's draconian policy. Anyone advocating independence or criticising Spain's strategy in the region ― whether activists, journalists, politicians, lawyers or anyone commenting on social media ― risks being charged with “glorifying terrorism”.

When the International Verification Commission submitted their report on ETA decommissioning, the Spanish government even called for their arrest for having been in contact with ETA in the first place.

Three of the lawyers arrested on January 12 were due to appear in the Spanish National Court later that day to defend 19 of the 35 Basque activists charged with membership of Batasuna (“Unity” in Basque), a leading left-nationalist Basque party banned by the Spanish Supreme Court in 2003.

The party was accused of being the political wing of ETA ― a claim it denies. The court case has now been postponed until the end of January.

The January 12 police operation came in direct response to a January 10 mass rally held in Bilbao, the capital of the Basque region. More than 80,000 people marched for the repatriation of hundreds of Basque political prisoners.

Prisoner rights' campaign

The march was organised by Sare Herritarra, a broad-based civil society network launched last year to campaign for the resolution of the status of Basque political prisoners and exiles. During the demonstration, volunteers sold merchandise and collected donations.

The funds raised during the demonstration were taken for safekeeping into LAB’s office to be banked later. It was these funds that were confiscated by the Guardia Civil during the raids.

The key demand of the January 10 rally was to call for an end to the Spanish state’s long-standing policy of “dispersion”. In place since 1989, “dispersion” is a tactic that involves keeping more than 460 Basque prisoners in about 80 jails across Spain and France, miles away from their families and communities.

Dispersion is a violation of human rights, contradicting Principle 20 of the United Nations 1988 resolution “Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment”.

The resolution says: “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.”

This principle defends the right of prisoners to maintain contact with family, legal and medical personnel. International human rights groups, as well as the United Nations, have called on the Spanish government to end dispersion, to no avail.

Dispersion imposes a huge emotional, organisational and financial burden on prisoners’ relatives, who are forced to travel long distances ― the average is 1300 kilometres ― to visit their loved ones for as little as half an hour.

Family members visiting Basque prisoners can also face threats, intimidation and sometimes violence, especially in Spain. Over the past 25 years, 17 relatives have also died in traffic accidents en route to a prison visit, and hundreds more have been injured in more than 400 accidents.

The Spanish state has tried to impose other punitive measures against Basque prisoners, including the so-called Parot Doctrine. Introduced in 2006, it allowed for retrospective extensions to prison terms, effectively imposing life sentences on 93 prisoners.

New punative measures

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg struck down the Parot Doctrine in 2013, forcing Spain to release more 60 prisoners. But the Spanish state has pursued new methods to extend Basque prisoners' sentences.

Under a European Council Framework decision, which provides “mutual recognition” of judgments and sentence within the European Union, time served by Basque prisoners in French jails should be counted towards their overall sentence when they are transferred to jails in Spain.

As the Spanish parliament didn’t act to enshrine the Framework Decision in law, Spanish courts had been applying the Framework Decision as it stands, and discounting time spent in French prisons for Basque prisoners.

Last year, the Spanish government legislated to limit the framework decision to sentences passed after August 15, 2010 ― an entirely arbitrary date. This revives the spirit of the Parot Doctrine to impose greater punishment on Basque political prisoners.

The new application of the law initially led to legal confusion in the courts, but a nine-to-six decision of the Grand Chamber of Spain's Supreme Court on January 13 found against the prisoners appealing the law.

The decision came amidst controversy, however, with 13 of the 18 magistrates of the Supreme Court publiclly criticising government interference.

The decision affects about 50 prisoners, whose sentences now face a significant illegal lengthening, as the Spanish state shifts the goal posts for Basque human rights and democracy yet again.

[First appeared at Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog.]

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