Spanish state attack on Basque activists provokes huge protest

At least 60,000 people march in Bilbao on October 5 against the Spanish state's crack down on Basque activists.

A crowd of at least 60,000 marched through central Bilbao on October 5 in protest against the arrest of 18 activists of Herrira (“To The People”) by the Spanish state. The group advocates for the rights of Basque political prisoners.

The march was called by EH Bildu, the left-nationalist alliance in the Basque regional parliament, as well as by the two Basque nationalist trade union confederations and 50 other social movements. It came after a wave of local protests against the raid on Herrira.

The 18 arrestees took part in the march. Along with tens of thousands of others, they wore the group’s blue T-shirt, helping create an impressive “blue tide” of support for its work. A banner in support of the prisoners’ rights and Herrira, carried by well-known Basque identities, led the march.

The parties that make up EH Bildu were there in strength. Their representatives included the president of the Gipuskoa regional government, run by the Basque nationalist left.

Speakers demanded that the Basque Country government, in the hands of the more conservative nationalist Basque National Party (PNV), take a stronger stand with Madrid on prisoners’ rights.

A statement read at the end of the march demanded respect for prisoners’ rights and committed to keep fighting until all Basque prisoners and exiles had returned home.

The Spanish state launched the attack on the Basque nationalist left on September 30. After being charged with belonging to and financing a terrorist group, and with “glorification of terrorism”, the 18 were released.

Four were made to pay bail of 20,000 euros (about $29,000). All must report to national Spanish police twice a month, even though the charges they face are all political offences unrelated to any act of violence. The charges carry six year prison sentences.

The Basque Country is a nation split between the Spanish and French state, with a long history of struggle for self-determination.

Herrira was founded after a previous Basque prisoners’ rights group, Askatasuna, was declared illegal in 2009. Herrira has always maintained a commitment to non-violent struggle for Basque rights and reconciliation.

Among Herrira’s key demands is that the Spanish state comply with its own laws. This includes releasing prisoners with terminal illnesses or who have completed sentences.

Herrira also demands that Basque prisoners are detained in local Basque prisons — not dispersed across the Spanish state, as is now the case.

The Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), the supposed “armed gang” at the centre of the allegations against Herrira members, declared a permanent and unilateral ceasefire in September last year. The group, which waged a decades-long armed campaign for Basque independence, is in the midst of disarming.

Despite these facts, Herrira offices were raided in a high-profile operation that also lead to the closure of 32 twitter accounts, 125 Facebook profiles and 38 web pages.

Bank accounts used by Herrira were frozen, including those holding funds to assist the families of prisoners. The group’s offices have now been sealed for two years and all its activity banned.

The Civil Guard, Spain’s militarised police force, also took advantage of the raid to seize computers, USBs and the telephone directory for members of the group.

The attack has several political objectives, including criminalising defence of Basque political prisoners and creating a smokescreen to distract attention from corruption within the Popular Party governing the Spanish state.

The attack is also aimed at the rising strength of several independence movements across Spain.

Two leaders of the movement for the prisoners’ rights, musician Bide Ertzean and journalist Estitxu Eizagirre, said after the attack that it demonstrated once again that the Basque people “still lack civil and political rights”.

They said it shows the way the Spanish state “limits and prohibits the right to association, organisation and freedom of expression”.

However, the protests against the raids and arrests indicate this latest PP bid to criminalise political activity by Basque nationalists will backfire on its authors.