Protests mount over Basque jailings


By Norm Dixon

The jailing of 23 national executive members of the left-wing Basque pro-independence party, Herri Batasuna (HB, People's Unity), has provoked widespread demonstrations in the Basque country. There have also been a spate of armed actions by ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Freedom).

On December 1, Spain's Supreme Court found the HB leaders guilty of collaborating with ETA and sentenced each to seven years' jail and a fine of 500,000 pesetas (A$5000). The leaders were charged following the distribution of a video during Spain's last general election campaign in support of negotiations with ETA for self-determination for the Basque country.

HB organises openly and peacefully for independence. It is the largest Basque political force in Navarre province and the second largest in Bascongadas, which groups the Spanish-ruled Basque provinces of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba.

HB obtains up to 20% of the vote in the southern (Spanish-ruled) Basque country. It has two parliamentarians in the national assembly and 11 in the Bascongadas and Navarre parliaments.

Following the July assassination by ETA of a local politician from the ruling conservative Popular Party, Madrid and the mass media whipped up an anti-ETA hysteria. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Spanish state set out to exploit outrage at ETA's tactics to turn public opinion against the Basque people's rights and to crush the legal Basque nationalist movement.

Five thousand young people matched through the streets of San Sebastian on December 6 shouting slogans calling for the release of the HB leaders and in support of ETA.

On December 7 in Donostia, thousands of young people mobilised behind a huge pro-independence banner carrying pictures of Basque activists killed by Spanish police. Hundreds of demonstrators also turned out in the town of Baiona. Basque youth armed with hammers and petrol cans set fire to the Socialist Party office in Sopelana.

On December 16, the radical Basque youth organisation Jarrai and the student union Ikasle Abertzaleak held demonstrations across the Basque country. Police in Irun, Navarre, attacked hundreds of young people. Demonstrations were also held in Bilbao, Donostia and Gasteiz.

Immediately after the jailings, under the pressure of popular sentiment, the two Basque trade union federations, ELA and LAB, called a general strike for December 15. However, on December 5, ELA and LAB proposed that the strike be replaced with a rally on December 13 in Bilbao, followed by a two-hour general work stoppage on December 15. HB agreed to the proposal.

The backtracking of the trade unions reflects their political alignment with the region's main capitalist party, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which supports more Basque autonomy without self-determination.

The conservative PNV is an ally of the right-wing national government led by the Popular Party and leads the regional government in Bascongadas. The PNV has been whipping up anti-HB, anti-ETA hysteria in the Basque country.

The ELA and LAB found the excuse they wanted to pull out of solidarity actions with HB altogether, when, on December 11, ETA killed a local Popular Party councillor in the town of Orereta. The trade unions withdrew their backing for the December 13 rally and cancelled the December 15 stoppage.

The HB leadership decided to go ahead with the rally, but it was banned by the Spanish interior ministry. HB rescheduled it for December 27.

ETA accused the trade unions of making a "political mistake" by missing a "big opportunity for taking steps towards peace even if they do not approve of ETA's actions".

In reply, ELA accused ETA of blocking attempts to find "democratic solutions" to the Basque conflict. The agricultural union EHNE said the slaying of the politician "was not compatible with the conditions required" for the rally. The social rights group Elkarri, which supports autonomy, said the ETA attack was against the "sensibility of the social majority".

On December 27, thousands marched in silence through the streets of Bilbao to demand the release of the HB leaders and negotiations towards self-determination. They carried a huge banner reading: "A democratic solution! We need peace!".

HB spokesperson Joseba Permach told demonstrators that the party will continue to search for a democratic solution to the conflict, despite Madrid's repression.

ETA's peace proposals, HB leaders explained, include recognition by the Spanish state of the right to self-determination and the territorial integrity of the Basque country, the removal of Spanish security forces, and a general amnesty for 2000 Basque refugees and 600 political prisoners.