Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

Monday, March 10, 2014
About 130,000 people marched in Bilbao on January 11 in support of the rights of Basque prisoners.

The Spanish government’s response to the move by armed Basque pro-independence organisation Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) to put its weapons beyond use has clearly demonstrated it favours continuing conflict over peace.

On February 21, ETA released a video showing two of its members meeting with representatives of the International Verification Commission. The IVC were inspecting weapons that had been put beyond operational use.

IVC spokesperson Ram Manikkalingam said that day: “The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible.” ETA published a statement on March 1 declaring it had begun the process of putting its entire arsenal beyond use.

The Amsterdam-based IVC is not recognised by the Spanish government. Consisting of six high-profile international experts in conflict resolution, it formed in 2011 to monitor and verify ETA’s permanent ceasefire. Its members have worked on conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Ireland.

The Spanish government’s response to the decommissioning move was to subpoena IVC members for interrogation. There is still a possibility that the IVC members may be charged with “assisting a terrorist group”.

Chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process, Jonathan Powell, wrote in the Financial Times on March 4 that the decommissioning move “appears to be unalloyed good news. But the reaction in Spain has been bizarre.”

Powell urged Spanish and French governments to make witnessing the decommissioning process legal.

The other international group founded to assist the Basque peace process is the International Contact Group, which aims to facilitate dialogue between the main actors.

While attending a peace conference in Baiona in the northern Basque Country (within the French state) on February 28, ICG members were summoned by a French court to face questioning over their contacts with ETA.

Four decades of conflict

ETA was formed by a group of Basque students in 1959 during the Franco dictatorship. It was formed as a response to the regime’s attempt to eradicate the ancient Basque language and culture.

The students believed that only an independent state could ensure the survival of the Basque nation. Launching its armed campaign in 1968, ETA played a leading role in the anti-Franco resistance.

Its independence campaign continued after Franco's death in 1975, as Spain’s “transition to democracy” failed to allow the Basque people self-determination. Only a minority of Basques voted in favour of the 1978 Constitution, which supports the “territorial integrity” of the Spanish state.

The continuing repression in the Basque Country, including widely documented use of torture by security forces, helped fuel the conflict. The Euskal Memoria Foundation has documented 9600 cases of torture of Basque prisoners over the past five decades.

Attempts to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict began in the late 1980s. Basque ceasefires in 1998 and 2006 broke down, but the desire for a negotiated solution has steadily grown among the Basque population.

In 1998, fearful of growing ties between the abertzale (patriotic) left and the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Spanish judiciary initiated a criminalisation strategy.

This strategy involved declaring “everything that surrounds ETA is ETA”. It meant any cultural group, political party or media outlet that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA.

The mass trials against political activists begun under this strategy have continued ever since. Newspapers were shut down and a 2002 law banned any party that did not denounce “anti-state violence”.

Former UN Special Rapportuer Martin Scheinin said in a UN report in December 2008 that this law defined “terrorism” so vaguely that it “might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives” as an armed group.

This has disenfranchised the abertzale left. Sortu, a new abertzale left party founded in 2011, rejected violence, but the Spanish Supreme Court still refused to allow it to be legally registered.

A challenge in the Constitutional Court, and international pressure on Madrid, resulted in Sortu being conditionally legalised in June 2012.

The abertzale left, running in electoral coalitions Bildu and Amaiur in 2011 and 2012, won between 22% and 26% of the vote in the Basque Country. This is its best electoral result ever.


The disarmament move is the latest in a series of unilateral acts by ETA since 2009. It aims to demilitarise the Basque conflict with Spain and France, and initiate conflict resolution to deal with the conflict's consequences.

But at each stage since the start of peace initiatives, the Spanish government has reacted provocatively with more repression. The abertzale left has responded to such provocations with an exceptional degree of cohesion, unity and discipline.

In October 2009, as abertzale left leaders met to discuss starting a strategic debate to work towards ETA’s permanent ceasefire, 10 leading activists were arrested.

Five activists, including abertzale left leader Arnaldo Otegi, were jailed by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon for at least six years on charges of seeking to reconstitute the leadership of banned political party Batasuna “on the orders of ETA”.

The launching of a strategic debate was announced despite the arrests at a press conference by more than 100 abertzale left activists in November 2009. The Spanish government responded by launching huge raids across the Basque Country.

Forty alleged members of political youth organisation Segi were arrested, most of whom said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The trial of the youth activists on terrorism charges began in October last year.

ETA announced an end to offensive actions in 2010 as debate about alternative strategies for achieving independence took place across the broader movement.

In October 2011, an International Peace Conference took place, issuing the Declaration of Aiete. This called on ETA to implement a definitive end to armed activity and seek talks with the Spanish and French governments. It urged these governments to respond positively to such a request and begin a process to address the conflict's consequences.

The declaration was issued by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, former Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern, former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland and former French interior minister Pierre Joxe.

The declaration was endorsed by former US President Jimmy Carter, former British PM Tony Blair and many leading Latin American political figures in Mexico in October last year, including 13 former presidents.

ETA responded to the declaration by immediately declaring a “definitive cessation” of armed actions. The groundswell of support among Basque society for an end to the conflict was shown in January 2012 when about 100,000 people marched in a demonstration for the repatriation of the Basque prisoners.

The number of Basque political prisoners ― which include hundreds of political and cultural activists, trade unionists and journalists as well as ETA activists ― peaked at more than 750 in 2010. This was the highest number since Franco’s death.


One month after the huge January 2012 march, a broad, legally registered, alliance formed called Herrira (Return Home). It organised an even bigger demonstration for prisoners’ rights in Donostia in January last year, which mobilised 115,000 people.

The group campaigned for an end to the “dispersal policy” ― under which Basque prisoners are scattered in jails far from their homes ― for the release of seriously ill prisoners and against the Parot Doctrine.

The Parot Doctrine, introduced in 2006 and applied retroactively, essentially meant some prisoners face life in jail rather than the formal 30-year maximum sentence. It was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in October last year.

There are also 15 terminally or chronically ill prisoners who are denied the medical care they require in jail. There are now 521 Basque prisoners held in 82 jails across the Spanish and French states, on average 600 kilometres from their homes. There are also 200 more activists facing trail for purely political activities.

Just weeks before the ECHR ruling against the Parot Doctrine, the Spanish government launched a big raid against Herrira. Authorities arrested 18 activists, who were charged with terrorism offences, and shut down the group.

The Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) released a a December 28 statement reaffirming its support for a peace process, and recognising the suffering caused by the conflict. It committed for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework.

Spain responded on January 8 by arresting and jailing eight EPPK mediators on the grounds that the EPPK was an “operational arm of ETA”.

A new group called Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), established after Herrira was shut down, planned to hold a march for prisoners’ rights in Bilbao in January. However, the demonstration was banned on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira.

Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march, but Sortu and other Basque groups including the PNV called for a new march on January 11.

This drew 130,000 people onto the streets of Bilbao, the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, under the slogan “Human Rights, Resolution, Peace”. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held a joint demonstration.

The Spanish government’s response to ETA's moves to disarm and disband show a growing sense of panic.

In a December 18 interview from jail with Mexico’s La Jornada, abertzale left leader Arnaldo Otegi said: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for [Spain], to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.”

From GLW issue 1000