Harsh criticism as Spain's government moves towards early release of dying Eta prisoner


Disgruntled supporters are angry, accusing the PP of surrendering to blackmail, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

JULY 1ST, 1997, offered one of the grimmest and most unforgettable television images of the Basque terrorist group Eta’s bloody conflict with the Spanish state, though one might have expected the occasion before the cameras to be joyful.

José Antonio Ortega Lara, a prison officer, had just been liberated from a 532-day Eta kidnapping.

His captors had previously been arrested without bloodshed. This Guardia Civil operation reflected well on Spain’s first Partido Popular (PP) government, which had only been 15 months in power.

But when Ortega Lara was filmed being reunited with his family, his emaciated appearance and disorientated demeanour rendered the occasion more distressing than triumphant.

The comparisons made at the time with surviving victims of Nazi concentration camps seemed justified.

The impact of a living death in an Eta “prison” – a grotesquely cramped and lightless space behind machinery in a disused factory – was painfully evident.

Ortega Lara became the living symbol of the cruelty of Eta’s actions for all Spanish and Basque democrats.

Since he was an active member of the deeply conservative PP, he also became an icon for the Spanish right.

Baltasar Garzón, the controversial Spanish magistrate who is defending Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, had interrogated one of Ortega Lara’s captors, Iosu Uribetxeberria just after his arrest.

The police had still not located Ortega Lara, who remained trapped in his hidden “cell”.

Garzón told the Spanish media on Saturday that Uribetxeberria’s refusal to co-operate was deliberately intended to ensure that Ortega Lara died of starvation.

The story was back in the news this weekend because another PP government and its prison administration had just set in motion the early release of Uribetxeberria – and faced into a barrage of harsh criticism for “betraying” Eta’s victims from many of its own supporters.

Uribetxeberria has already served half of the maximum 30 years that Spanish law allows for his role in this and another kidnapping, as well as several Eta killings.

He has cancer, and prison doctors last week confirmed that he has a 90 per cent chance of dying within the next 12 months.

He had gone on hunger strike 10 days ago to demand early release on compassionate grounds. Other high-profile prisoners had also declared themselves on hunger strike in sympathy.

Uribetxeberria’s case had become a cause célèbre for pro-independence radicals in the Basque Country, who are campaigning for early release for all of the 600-odd Eta prisoners who remain in Spanish jails.

They argue that Eta’s current ceasefire, now almost two years old, is irreversible. They say that the Spanish government should at least immediately end a harsh policy of “dispersal”, which means that most prisoners are held in prisons at great distances from their families.

The strong case for releasing Uribetxeberria on compassionate grounds was significantly expanding the already broad base – in the Basque Country, but nowhere else – for the radicals’ campaign.

The Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT) has accused the government of “surrendering to blackmail” in the face of the hunger strikes and this campaign. It went so far as to say that the release did “irreparable damage to the anti-terrorist struggle”.

Meanwhile, the Basque radicals are claiming that the government’s decision represents a victory for their campaign, which in turn feeds the anger of disgruntled PP supporters.

This is certainly a problem for the PP, which brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets several times in opposition to any negotiations with Eta by the previous Socialist Party (PSOE) government.

Indeed, the PP has often appeared used the inflammatory language of the AVT when debating prison policy for terrorist convicts, and has sometimes appeared to confuse justice with vengeance.

However, less partisan observers point out that Eta’s ceasefire is undoubtedly unilateral – that is, no concessions have been granted to the movement in exchange for peace, in sharp distinction to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

All the government is doing, a PP spokesman said yesterday [Sunday], is following the letter of the law, which recognises the desirability of permitting terminally ill prisoners to spend time with their families.

No doubt the government also does have an anxious eye on the continuing growth of the pro-independence movement in the Basque Country. Its non-violent strategy is attracting many more voters than Eta’s violence ever did.

In that context, it would certainly also make sense to reverse the dispersal policy, which requires no changes in the law. It would also conform to the view of many human rights groups that separating prisoners from their families is an excessive additional punishment.