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.

In this sense, Eta’s fellow-travellers could be said to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, with the help of the Spanish authorities. The case for expediting Eta prisoner-releases would therefore appear to be strong, on humanitarian and pragmatic political grounds.

However, public opinion across Spain is generally deeply hostile, or at best indifferent, to any improvement in the prisoners’ conditions. Even when they have served their time, opposition to their release can be extremely vocal, with some media blurring the line between the rule of law and the desire for vengeance.

Being “tough” on Basque terrorists has long been a vote-catching strategy, especially for the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), now in government. Some associations of Eta victims are highly politicised and highly influential. A recent prison encounter exemplifies their approach.

“The only person who could forgive you is dead,” Consuelo Ordóñez bluntly told Valentín Lasarte, who had killed her brother, a leading Basque conservative politician, in 1995.

She acknowledged that Lasarte’s expression of remorse was “possibly sincere”, but insisted that she would neither forgive nor forget. She also demanded that Lasarte should reveal the names of all those who assisted him in carrying out attacks, something he, like almost all prisoners, will refuse to do.

Ethically, the Spanish right is on particularly shaky ground in taking such an obdurate stance. The PP does not like to be reminded of the crimes against humanity committed by the Franco dictatorship, a regime for which some of its leaders retain an ambiguous nostalgia.

Those crimes dwarf Eta’s atrocities, appalling as the latter undoubtedly were. Yet they have gone entirely unpunished, as the tacit price for Spain’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy knows that even the slightest relaxation of prison conditions for Eta members would carry a political cost. The right-wing media instantly label even minor concessions as a “surrender to terrorism”.

But he also knows that Eta is most unlikely to finally dissolve itself unless its prisoners – by now probably the majority of its membership – can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, Eta’s final dissolution is a prize any Spanish prime minister would dearly love to win. Given Spain’s chronic economic woes, it may well be the only prize within Rajoy’s grasp.

Rajoy does appear to be making some attempts to quietly improve the lot of some prisoners. Some well-placed observers say that in fact he is moving as fast as his voters will allow him, and perhaps rather faster than that behind the scenes.

Whether or not he is prepared to put statesmanship in the Basque Country before fear of reaction from ultra-conservative supporters elsewhere in Spain will be a key test of his premiership.

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