IT IS more than two years since the Basque terrorist group Eta last carried out a killing, and almost two years since it declared a ceasefire that now appears to be both unconditional and irreversible. Nevertheless, 600 people convicted of Eta crimes remain in prison in Spain with no prospect of early release. In strictly legal terms, this is as it should be. As Eta’s ceasefire is “unconditional”, there is no obligation on the government to grant clemency to terrorists who have, in many cases, committed horrific crimes. Political wisdom, however, should not follow purely judicial criteria.
Irish parallels here could be misleading, because the mass release of republican and loyalist prisoners was indeed part of the negotiated settlement we call the peace process. Eta’s own intransigence obstructed two opportunities for broadly similar processes in the past, and its prisoners are now paying the price. Ironically, the radical pro-independence movement in the Basque Country is finding that the “unarmed strategy” it had been most reluctant to embrace now has the support of one in four Basques voters.
Where the Irish experience may be helpful is that it strongly indicates that the vast majority of those imprisoned for terrorist crimes do not reoffend if released early in a new political scenario. Their return to their communities may indeed help copper-fasten the peace. Increasingly, it is the Spanish government that looks intransigent today, at least to many Basques. The right-wing Partido Popular (PP) administration is now in a bind of its own making.
In opposition, the PP leadership’s rhetoric recklessly blurred the line between vengeance and justice on this issue. Its own radical supporters, in the media, and even in the European Parliament, now accuse it of surrendering to terrorists if it even moves, as it did 10 days ago, towards granting early release to a dying prisoner who has already served 20 years. It is also defying a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court declared that a 2006 ruling of the Spanish supreme court, revoking remission benefits for work and good behaviour for dozens of Eta prisoners, should be rescinded.
It will take courage and decency, but the government should now adopt much more flexible policies on Eta prisoners. If it does not, rising anger in the Basque Country at its rigidity, perceived as vindictiveness, will probably create a further surge in pro-independence votes in next October’s regional elections there.