Sunday, January 18, 2015

Euskal Herria: Huge rallies protest Spanish state repression

33,000 march for peace and civil liberties in Donostia
On January 17, 33,000 people marched through the Basque city of Donostia (San Sebastián) to protest ongoing Spanish state repression against independence and civil rights activists and lawyers in the Basque Country.

Marching under a large banner that read "Human Rights, Resolution, Peace," the demonstration was made up of members of the Basque pro-independence left coalition EH Bildu, various trade unions and supporters of Basque political prisoners.

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

Early in the morning, twelve Basque lawyers were arrested, as were four people allegedly linked to the banned prisoners’ support organisation Herrira. Police searched a number of premises across Spain, including those of the left-nationalist Basque trade union LAB in Bilbao, and over 90,000 euros in legal donations was confiscated.

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

The Interior Ministry has also accused them of passing instructions from the armed separatist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – “Basque Homeland and Freedom”) to imprisoned members of the organisation.

Armed struggle has ended . . .

Over the past four decades, ETA has waged an armed struggle against a repressive Spanish state for an independent socialist Basque homeland that has cost over 800 lives. In 2011, however, ETA unilaterally declared a “permanent cessation” of armed activity, and began decommissioning their weapons early last year, supervised by the independent International Verification Commission.

The seven provinces of Euskal Herria (Basque Country)
Despite moves by ETA and Basque pro-independence organisations towards a finding peaceful resolution of the Basque conflict, Spanish state repression has continued unabated.

The Spanish government continues to demand nothing less than the unconditional surrender of ETA, and uses its 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 and democracy in the Basque Country.

. . . but state repression continues

 Since 1998, the Spanish courts have taken the view that "everything that surrounds ETA is ETA", effectively criminalising all advocates of independence. Since the introduction of the Law of Political Parties in 2002, numerous pro-independence political parties and civil society organisations have been declared illegal and disbanded, despite having no connection to ETA.

Freedom of speech has also fallen victim to Spain's draconian policy in the Basque Country. Anyone expressing political opinions, 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"), a leading left-nationalist Basque party which was banned by the Spanish Supreme Court in 2003, accused of being the political wing of ETA (a claim the party denied). The court case has now been postponed until the end of January.

The police operation – code-named "Mate" for the chess move "Checkmate" (a similar operation against activists and lawyers in 2013 was named "Jaque", or "Check") – came in direct response to a mass rally held in Bilbao, the capital of the Basque region, on January 10, when over 80,000 people marched for the repatriation of hundreds of Basque political prisoners.

Campaigning for prisoners' rights

The massive rally was organised by Sare Herritarra, a broad-based civil society network launched in 2014 to campaign for the resolution of the status of Basque political prisoners and exiles. During the demonstration, volunteers sold stickers and light-sticks and raised donations.

80,000 march in Bilbao for prisoners' rights
The funds raised during the demonstration were taken for safekeeping into LAB’s office to be banked on Monday morning. 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 sees more than 460 Basque prisoners held in around 80 jails across Spain and France, miles away from their communities and families.

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", namely that:

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.

The Principle defends the right of prisoners to maintain family, legal and medical connections, and international human rights organisations, 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 – hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres (the average is 1,300 kilometres) – in order to visit their loved ones for as little as half an hour.

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

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

New punitive measures introduced

While the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg struck down the Parot Doctrine on 21 October 2013, forcing Spain to release over 60 prisoners, the Spanish state has pursued new and questionable methods to extend Basque prisoners' sentences.

Under the European Council Framework Decision 2008/909/JHA, which provides "mutual recognition" of judgments and sentence within the European Union, time served by Basque prisoners in French prisons should be counted towards their overall sentence when they are transferred to the Spanish state.

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. 

In 2014, the Spanish government legislated to limit the Framework Decision’s action to sentences passed after 15 August 2010 – an entirely arbitrary date – effectively reviving 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 9-to-6 decision of the Grand Chamber of Spain's Supreme Court on January 13 found against prisoners appealing the law. The decision came amidst controversy, however, with 13 of the 18 magistrates of the Supreme Court making public their criticism of government interference. 

The decision affects approximately 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.  

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