Eta's farewell to arms puts prisoner issue centre stage
OPINION:Some can neither forgive nor forget, but polls indicate a desire for activists to be moved to Basque jails
THE ECONOMIC crisis has dominated debate in Spain over the last few years, threatening as it does so many aspects of the country’s future. Ironically, the biggest threat to Spanish stability for decades, the Basque terrorist group Eta, appears to have faded completely over the same period.
Highly successful police operations, coupled with evaporating support for political violence in the Basque region, had made the group virtually moribund by 2009. In January 2011, Eta (Basque Homeland and Liberty) confirmed that a ceasefire, announced the previous September, was indeed “permanent, general and verifiable”.
There is broad acceptance in Spain that, despite bitter memories of past ceasefires collapsing, Eta’s 50-year armed campaign for Basque independence really is over.
Yet some 550 Eta-related prisoners remain in Spanish jails. Almost all of them are still held under a harsh policy of “dispersion”, which keeps them in prisons far removed from families and friends. Their access to benefits for good behaviour is also much more restricted than that accorded to “ordinary” prisoners.
These policies have long been criticised as inhumane by groups such as Amnesty International.
Meanwhile, Arnaldo Otegi, veteran leader of Batasuna, Eta’s banned political wing, also remains behind bars. He is widely regarded as the main architect of Eta’s farewell to arms. His conviction for complicity with terrorism was confirmed recently, on the rather bizarre grounds that he had helped persuade Eta to hang up its guns.
The contrast with the blanket release of Irish terrorist prisoners following the republican and loyalist ceasefires, and of government relationships with their political leaders, could hardly be greater.
It must be said that the Irish and Basque situations are very different in some respects. Republicans and loyalists had engaged in a painstaking and seminal peace process with the British and Irish governments prior to prisoner releases. In contrast, Eta has twice botched similar opportunities to engage with the Spanish government and was not in any position to negotiate conditions for its current and entirely unilateral ceasefire.
Nevertheless, polls show that a substantial majority of Basques want the Madrid government to at least move the prisoners to Basque jails. This would not require any amnesty or legal changes.
People on the ground in the region, even many of those who most firmly rejected Eta’s methods and aims, understand something that is familiar from Irish experience.
Democrats rightly class political terrorists as criminals, but their motives are different from those of other citizens deemed guilty of violent crimes. There are exceptions, but most of them kill neither for personal gain nor because of sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies.
They see themselves as soldiers. And if their organisations decide the war is over, then the vast majority of them will reintegrate remarkably well back into civil society.
Of course it must be recognised that their early release can be very painful for victims and their relatives. But their return to their communities can also play a big part in consolidating peace.
Continued imprisonment can have the opposite effect – boosting support for radical views. Keeping people like Otegi in jail, and banning non-violent Basque pro-independence organisations, has helped push support for their cause to its highest level to date – 25 per cent of the vote – in Basque elections last year.