Eta’s legacy still divides as Spain awaits definite end to campaign

Separatist prisoners’ landmark statement evokes both support and scepticism

Members of the Spainish Association of Victims of Terrorism gather to commemorate victims of terrorism and to protest against the court decision to annul the Parot Doctrine in the Basque region last month. Photograph: Juan Herrero/EPA

Members of the Spainish Association of Victims of Terrorism gather to commemorate victims of terrorism and to protest against the court decision to annul the Parot Doctrine in the Basque region last month. Photograph: Juan Herrero/EPA


One freezing cold morning 40 years ago last month, a Dodge Dart car was driving through Madrid’s Salamanca neighbourhood when a bomb attached to it detonated, blowing the vehicle 35 metres into the air and over the top of a nearby building. Three people were inside the car and all died from their injuries: the driver, a policeman, and Luis Carrero Blanco, who was prime minister and the heir apparent of dictator Francisco Franco.

That bombing, on December 20th, 1973, was one of the very first fatal attacks by the Basque separatist group Eta. But it announced the organisation’s arrival as a serious threat to the Spanish state.

Almost exactly four decades on, Eta is in a very different situation. It has not killed on Spanish soil since 2009 and in October 2011 it formally announced the end of a violent campaign for an independent Basque state that had killed more than 800 Spaniards. Over the last decade or so, intelligence work by Spanish and French authorities has led to the imprisonment of dozens of members of the terrorist organisation, including many of its most senior leaders. Today, more than 500 are in jail while only an estimated 50 are still active.

Last week, a group representing many of those prisoners issued a video statement in which it acknowledged for the first time “the suffering and damage” caused on both sides of the Basque divide. Crucially, it also accepted the legitimacy of the Spanish penitentiary system, which deliberately keeps many prisoners hundreds of kilometres away from their families.

While the Popular Party (PP) government in Madrid was reluctant to acknowledge any significance in the move, others were more welcoming. “It’s a good step,” said Iñaki Oyarzábal, the party’s secretary general in the Basque region. “Today the terrorists know that they have no choice but to accept the law.”

Eta has never been closer to extinction. That feeling could be reinforced today, when about 60 convicted Eta killers who have been released from prison recently are expected to voice support for the prisoners who made last week’s statement, with a public act or declaration in the town of Durango.

And yet, while Spain awaits the definitive end of Eta and its agreement to hand over weapons, the group’s legacy still bitterly divides society.

The former prisoners who plan to speak out today have all been released in the wake of an October ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against the continued imprisonment of Inés del Río, jailed in 1987 for murdering 27 people.

Del Río was originally due to be freed in 2008, due to good behaviour. However, just weeks before her release, the Spanish high court applied the so-called “Parot doctrine” to her case, meaning that her sentence was recalculated, keeping her in jail until 2017. The doctrine, first introduced in 2006 to keep the Eta member Henri Parot behind bars, retroactively limited the effect of a prisoner’s good behaviour on the length of time they served.

The court’s ruling meant about 60 others in similar situations have been subsequently freed, to the horror of terrorism victims’ groups and many on the political right.

“I feel I’ve been deceived. I feel I’ve been cheated,” said Ángeles Pedraza, president of the AVT terrorism victims’ group. “The judges who were supposed to oversee justice in the country ran as fast as they could to release those killers.”

Groups such as the AVT have a high profile and have traditionally had close links to the PP (as well as facing frequent accusations of extremism). However, the government’s virtually unavoidable decision to accept the European court ruling on the prisoner releases has made it a new target of the wrath of campaigners such as Pedraza.

Their outrage has been further fuelled by pro-independence ceremonies staged in Basque towns to welcome back Eta members on their release.

When Francisco Javier Martínez Izagirre was freed in November after 21 years in jail, a guard of honour of flaming torches greeted him in his hometown of Galdakao and fireworks were let off late into the night to celebrate his arrival.

Pedraza and others pointed to the fact that a hero’s welcome was being given to a man who had killed two civil guards, a policeman and a three-year-old boy, with a car bomb that had been intended for the boy’d father.

Such is the climate of tension that yesterday it was still unclear whether the released prisoners’ event scheduled for today would be allowed to go ahead. While some observers were interpreting it as a conciliatory step that might encourage some kind of closure for the Basque region, the authorities were investigating whether its participants could be charged with “glorifying terrorism”.

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