Thursday, March 26, 2015

Euskal Herria: Spanish arrests a snub to calls for peace in the Basque Country

Guardia Civil arresting Oihana Barrios
The Spanish state has responded to an international declaration calling for the release of Basque political prisoners and a restoration of the peace process by arresting four representatives of the prisoners’ rights movement.

On March 25, Guardia Civil (Spain’s heavily politicised military police) arrested Nagore López de Luzuriaga, Izaskun Abaigar, Fernando Arburua and Oihana Barrios, in a series of coordinated raids in an operation codenamed “Pastor” (“Shepherd”).

Spain’s Ministry of the Interior confirmed that the operation had been carried carried out in the Basque provinces of Gipúzkoa, Vizcaya and Alava, as well as in Nafarroa, and that more arrests have not been ruled out.

The Ministry accused the four arrested of being part of a network using Basque political prisoners to support terrorism, and of coordinating a “cohesion front” among the prisoners on behalf of a terrorist organisation.

In fact, the “terrorist organisation” they are accused of working for – the armed separatist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna; “Basque Homeland and Freedom”) – has been on a "permanent ceasefire" since 2012, and accepts the necessity of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Two of those arrested were campaigners for the rights of Basque political prisoners and their relatives. Nagore López de Luzuriaga is a spokesperson for the prisoners’ relatives association Etxerat (“Home”), and had met with Iñigo Urkullu, the President of the Basque Autonomous Region's Government, to discuss the issue only a month ago. 

Etxerat delegation to European Parliament in February
Izaskun Abaigar was part of a recent Etxerat delegation to the European Parliament in Brussels, campaigning for an end to the dispersal of Basque political prisoners to prisons throughout Spain and France.

Fernando Arburua and Oihana Barrios are both active in Jaiki Hadi, a collective of health professionals that provides medical and psychological care to Basque political prisoners – a number of whom are seriously ill – and to their relatives.

Ongoing repression

These arrests are just the latest in an ongoing policy by the Spanish state to target all pro-independence organisations in the Basque Country.

In January, as part of "Operation Mate", eight Basque prisoners' lawyers and four solidarity activists were arrested on charges of working with ETA, and 90,000 euros collected for the work of Etxerat during a massive prisoners' solidarity demonstration in Bilbao were confiscated.

This was preceded in January 2014 by “Operacion Jaque” ("Operation Check"), where another eight prisoners’ rights activists and lawyers were arrested, and in October 2013 where eighteen activists of the prisoners’ rights organisation Herrira were also arrested.

Basque civil society network Sare Herritarra criticised the arrests, as did the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group in European Parliament, which issued a statement describing the move as "unsettling".

Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson also condemned the arrests, and called for Basque political prisoners to be freed as a step towards achieving peace in the region.

"The continued imprisonment of Basque prisoners is an unnecessary obstacle to the Basque peace process and the remaining prisoners should be released immediately," she said.

International Declaration

Brian Currin, Mark Demesmaeker MEP, and Frieda Brepoels
The arrests came the day after a conference was held in the European Parliament in Brussels to mark five years since the ‘Brussels Declaration’ was issued in support of building a peace process in the Basque Country.

The conference – organised by the Basque Friendship Group, made up of MEPs from across the political spectrum – was addressed by South African lawyer and conflict resolution expert Brian Currin, and former Flemish Alliance MEP Frieda Brepoels.

It concluded with the launch of an international campaign calling for the release of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi and for the repatriation of Basque prisoners to the Basque Country.

The Declaration lists two dozen high profile signatories including: Pepe Mujica (former President of Uruguay); Nobel peace prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Máiread Maguire and Adolfo Perez Esquivel; political activist Angela Davis; Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams; Nora Morales (cofounder of Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo); Philosopher Slavoj Zizek; left wing writer Tariq Ali; and the Reverend Harold Good (who oversaw the decommissioning of arms in the Irish peace process).

Peace process and repatriating prisoners

Arnaldo Otegi – Secretary General of the left-wing Basque pro-independence party Sortu – has been a key advocate of a peace process in the Basque country, helping establish a now permanent ceasefire by ETA, but remains imprisoned.
Arnaldo Otegi, Secretary General of Sortu
In 2011, ETA unilaterally declared a “permanent cessation” after forty years of armed activity, and began decommissioning their weapons early last year, under the supervision of the independent International Verification Commission.

Despite moves by ETA and Basque pro-independence organisations towards finding peaceful resolution of the Basque conflict, Spanish state repression has continued.

The Spanish government position is to demand the total and unconditional surrender of ETA, and targets all peaceful and democratic movements for Basque independence by claiming they are linked to "terrorism".

Since 1998, the Spanish courts have taken the view that "everything that surrounds ETA is ETA", effectively criminalising journalists, politicians, lawyers and civil rights activists, who face the constant threat of arrest, torture and imprisonment on trumped-up charges.

In addition to targeting civil society and political organisations, since 1989 the Spanish state has used a tactic called “dispersion” that sees more than 460 Basque prisoners held in around 80 jails across Spain and France, an average of 1,300 kilometres away from their communities and families. 

"Basque Prisoners And Exiles: Home!"
This policy is a violation of international human rights, as it denies prisoners the right to maintain family, legal and medical connections.

It also comes at great emotional, organisational and financial cost to prisoners’ relatives, who continue to face threats, intimidation and sometimes violence when visiting their relatives in prison.

Over the past 25 years, 17 relatives have died in traffic accidents en route, and hundreds more have been injured in more than 400 accidents.

The Spanish government continues to ignore calls from international human rights organisations, the United Nations and from massive protests in the Basque Country to comply with their human rights obligations and return the prisoners to their homeland.

Despite Spanish recalcitrance, the issue of "dispersion" remains central to taking the political process forward in the Basque Country, a fact recognised at the conference in Brussels. 

The international declaration that was launched on March 24 reads, in part:

“Arnaldo Otegi, whose case has been raised to the European Court of Human Rights, is being held in a Spanish prison far away from his family and friends. The same are the cases of some 500 other Basque prisoners related to this conflict.”

“They are deliberately dispersed, often in solitary confinement, and all are in prisons long distances from the Basque Country. A reality that brings and added punishment to their families, doomed to travel long distances to visit their loved ones.”

“We, therefore, call for the immediate release of Arnaldo Otegi, a man who took risks for peace and democracy and who tirelessly persuaded many others to believe in the power of word alone as the mean of resolving this conflict. His release and the end of the dispersal policy, prior to an agreed early release process, are necessary steps to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.” 

Further reading:
- Euskal Herria: Huge rallies protest Spanish state repression
- Basque Country: Dealing with the consequences of the conflict
- Prisoners and peace-making in the Basque Country
- Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

Video on the campaign for the release of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi

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