Arnaldo Otegi, general secretary of the Basque pro-independence party Sortu, was released from prison yesterday after a controversial six-year sentence.
He continues to divide Spanish and Basque public opinion. The conventional view in most of Spain has long been that Otegi is either the puppet or the leader of the Basque terrorist group Eta. That is reflected in a message from the Association of Victims of Terrorism: "Hurt and outrage on seeing how an Eta terrorist is received as a hero on his release."
But the conventional view is by no means universal. The leader of the new Spanish leftist party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, which has 69 seats in parliament, said Otegi's release was "good news for democrats. No one should go to prison for their ideas". Iglesias was rapidly contradicted by Albert Rivera, leader of Spain's other major new parliamentary party, the centre-right Ciudadanos, who retorted that Otegi had been jailed for "membership of an armed gang".
It is a clear indication of Otegi’s continuing political significance that both leaders chose to devote time to this issue yesterday, while the new Spanish parliament was debating, after months of delay, the election of a new prime minister who is urgently seeking support from each of them.
While Otegi received a predictably rapturous reception from supporters in his hometown of Elgoibar, it remains to be seen whether his charismatic presence can revive the fortunes of the radical Basque independence movement. Its star rose rapidly after Eta completely abandoned its terrorist campaign more than six years ago. But it has lost significant support in more recent elections, mostly to the Basque version of Podemos.
Whatever about the future, Otegi has already played a remarkable if still contested role in the history of the Basque Country. The Spanish high court convicted him in 2011 as a leader of Eta and for seeking to rebuild the illegal Batasuna party on Eta's orders. The peculiarity of this sentence, as many observers have pointed out, is that most of the evidence suggests that Otegi had actually spent the previous 15 years working from within the political side of the independence movement to persuade its military wing to end terrorism.
True, he failed spectacularly twice, when Eta broke off ceasefires in 1999 and 2007. And his refusal to publicly condemn the callous killings that followed understandably provoked revulsion in most Spaniards and many Basques. Yet he deserves credit for persisting, and finally building a political majority to force the remaining hardliners to bring Eta’s campaign to a cessation. There is now a great opportunity for whatever new Spanish government emerges to at last engage with Otegi’s peace process by, at the very least, moving the many Eta prisoners currently dispersed in distant jails much closer to their homes.