Global campaign: ‘Free Otegi, bring Basque prisoners home’

By Emma Clancy

March 28, 2015 -- Green Left Weekly, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- An international campaign for the release of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi was launched at a conference in the European Parliament in Brussels on March 24.

A statement calling for Otegi’s release was announced at the conference, which has been endorsed by international figures including former Latin American presidents, Nobel Prize winners, political representatives and former political prisoners.

The initial signatories include Senator José Pepe Mújica, president of Uruguay until his term ended in March; Fernando Lugo, president of Paraguay until he was ousted in a constitutional coup in 2012; and José Manuel Zelaya, former Honduran president deposed in a right-wing military coup in 2009.

The statement has also been signed by Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairéad Maguire.

Leading African-American liberation activist and retired professor Angela Davis, Leyla Zana (ex-prisoner and the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament), Palestinian National Council member Leila Khaled, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, former London mayor Ken Livingstone and author Tariq Ali have also added their endorsement.

The campaign was formally launched by popular Basque punk musician Fermin Muguruza, and also heard from South African lawyer and conflict resolution expert Brian Currin and Sinn Féin member of the European Parliament and ex-prisoner Martina Anderson.

As well as calling for the release of Otegi, the campaign calls for an end to the "dispersal" of Basque political prisoners prior to an early-release scheme being established, and for them to be brought to jails closer to their homes – as is required under international human rights law.

Under Spain’s dispersion policy, around 500 prisoners are held in jails across the Spanish and French states at distances of up to 1200 kilometres from their homes and families. A large proportion of these are held in jail for purely political work such as membership of a political party or youth organisation.

The Spanish government responded to the announcement of the international campaign by arresting four people the next day, March 25, on "terrorism" charges. They were held for two days and then released on bail.

Two of those arrested are activists in Etxerat (Home), the prisoners’ relatives association, and the other two are psychologists part of an organisation, Jaiki Hadi, that promotes the health and wellbeing of the prisoners.

One of the Etxerat representatives had been in the European Parliament just weeks ago on March 4-5 to discuss the campaign for an end to dispersal with a range of MEPs from across the political spectrum.

The other Etxerat representative had met with president of the Basque Government Iñigo Urkullu last month in his first formal reception for the relatives of prisoners.

‘Leader of the Basque peace process’

The Otegi campaign statement says: "Five years ago the Basque independence movement began an unprecedented and far-reaching debate. That debate concluded with an unequivocal commitment to an exclusively peaceful and democratic pursuit of self-determination for the Basque Country.

"The movement renounced the use of violence and committed to the goal of ending the long and violent conflict by means of dialogue."

More than any other individual, Otegi is the person most responsible for convincing ETA that its armed campaign needed to end, and for initiating and guiding the broad democratic discussion among pro-independence political activists that reached a consensus firmly in support of this strategy.

He has been described by Desmond Tutu as the "leader of the Basque peace process".

Otegi was born into a Euskera-speaking (Basque language) family in 1958 during the heyday of the Franco dictatorship when speaking Euskera was a crime. He attended underground Basque language schools as a child and became involved in the militant Basque struggle for independence from Spain and France when he was 17.

Otegi was jailed in 1989 for involvement in the 1979 ETA kidnapping of Michelin factory director Luis Abaitua during a bitter industrial dispute; Abaitua was released weeks later. Otegi served his sentence and was released in 1993. This 1979 action was the only armed action he has ever been associated with.

Otegi became increasingly involved in political activism and was elected as an MP for the pro-independence left party Herri Batasuna (People’s Unity) in the Basque Autonomous Community in 1995.

He was thrust into a critical leadership role in Herri Batasuna when the party’s entire national executive was jailed by the Spanish judiciary in 1997, becoming the party’s key spokesperson.

Since then, Otegi has been acknowledged as the leader of the Basque pro-independence political movement.

But together with hundreds of other pro-independence political activists, Otegi has faced charges and sentences for "terrorism" for purely political work since 1998, when the Spanish government introduced its policy that claimed "everything that surrounds ETA is ETA".

The chief architect of this strategy, Judge Baltasar Garzón, argued that any political party, youth organisation, newspaper or community centre that shared the goal of Basque independence was supposedly a part of ETA.

The two main pieces of legislation drawn up by the Spanish government to prosecute political activists were the 2000 law on "glorifying terrorism" and the 2002 Law on Political Parties.

The Law on Political Parties was explicitly designed to criminalise Batasuna, which at this time was polling between 10-18% of the vote in Basque elections. Batasuna was officially outlawed in 2003. Both laws are still in place.

In his December 2008 report, then-UN Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism Martin Scheinin said the law on parties defined terrorism so vaguely that it "might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives" as those pursued an armed group.

Commenting on the law against "glorifying terrorism" in the same report, Professor Scheinin said the law "should include the requirements of an intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, as well as the existence of an actual risk that such an offence will be committed as a consequence".

Political sentences

Otegi has been brought before the courts a dozen times since 1998, and has been in and out of jail, through the majority of these cases have eventually been dismissed.

Among the blatantly political charges he has been convicted of are:

In November 2005, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced Otegi to a year in jail for "insulting the king". This case arose from comments made by Otegi at a 2003 press conference discussing the closing down of the moderate Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria, and the arrest and torture of 13 of its editors and staff by the Guardia Civil.

Otegi commented that as the official head of the armed forces, King Juan Carlos, was effectively in command of those in the Guardia Civil who had carried out the torture and bore ultimate responsibility.

The case prompted then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven to visit the Basque Country in 2004. He produced a report on Spain in which he condemned the state’s system of incommunicado detention.

In 2010, seven years after the closing of the newspaper, the charges against it and its staff and editors were dropped, and in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Spanish government for its refusal to investigate the allegations of torture.

In March 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Spain had infringed Otegi’s right to freedom of expression in this case, and ordered Spain to pay his legal costs and 23,000 euros in damages.

In April 2006, Otegi was sentenced to 15 months in jail by the Audiencia Nacional (Spanish National Court) for "glorifying terrorism" due to his participation in a December 2003 commemoration of an ETA leader, Jose Miguel Beñarán, or Argala,who was assassinated by a Spanish government death squad in 1978.

The commemoration marked the 25th anniversary of Argala’s death. Otegi’s lawyer pointed out that this commemoration was an annual event with many participants, yet Otegi was singled out for charges based on his participation for political reasons.

In March 2010, Otegi was sentenced to two years in prison for "glorifying terrorism" for a speech he made in 2005 in which he compared long-term ETA prisoner Jose Maria Sagarduy to Nelson Mandela. Most significantly, part of his sentence was that he was banned from holding public office for 16 years.

Bateragune Five

Otegi has been one of the main participants in all of the attempts to find a political solution to the five-decade long Basque conflict since 1998.

In October 2009, key leaders of the abertzale (pro-independence) left, led by Otegi, were preparing a new peace initiative to call for Basques to commit to using exclusively peaceful and democratic methods in their struggle for Basque independence.

On October 13, 2009, as they prepared this new peace initiative, 10 central leaders of the political movement were arrested -- five of them, including Otegi, in raids on the headquarters of the left-wing, pro-independence trade union confederation LAB. Former LAB secretary-general Rafa Diez was also among those arrested.

The case has become known as "Bateragune" (meeting place). Four days after the arrests, 50,000 Basques marched in a demonstration for their release. Five of the 10 were jailed without bail by Judge Garzón for "attempting to reconstitute the leadership of Batasuna".

Despite the arrests, the peace initiative was announced at a press conference of 100 abertzale left leaders the following month.

The initiative has led to developments including the adoption of the proposal to support purely peaceful struggle by Baque political movement following widespread discussions and debates that involved more than 10,000 activists; the announcement of a permanent ceasefire by ETA in 2010; the further confirmation of a "definitive cessation" of armed actions by ETA in October 2011, and its move last year to begin the process of disarming.

It has also led to the formation and legal registration of the new pro-independence party Sortu in 2013. Sortu has rejected violence and gained unprecedented levels of popular support in the Basque Country.

In September 2011, Otegi and Diez were sentenced to 10 years jail each, while the three others, Sonia Jacinto, Arkaitz Rodriguez and Miren Zabaleta, received eight years. The Supreme Court later reduced Otegi’s sentence to six and a half years.

In July 2012, the Spanish Constitutional Court ratified this sentence in a decision which split the court, with five out of 12 judges dissenting. Otegi’s case is now being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Five years of provocation

At the time of Otegi’s arrest in 2009, a Batasuna spokesperson responded by saying: "The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country."

The Spanish government’s response to the attempts to build a peace process in the Basque country appears baffling to many international observers.

The arrest of the architects of the new peace initiative was just the first step in more than five years of intensely provocative measures by the Spanish government, which seems determined to avoid a resolution of the conflict at all costs.

In response to the announcement of the peace initiative by 100 leaders of the abertzale left in November 2009, the Guardia Civil carried out a massive series of raids.

They arrested 40 youth activists alleged to be members of the peaceful political youth organisation Segi, 32 of whom said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The youths were acquitted of all charges in June 2014.

A group of international leaders issued the "Declaration of Aiete" in October 2011 that called on ETA to declare a definitive cessation of armed actions, and urged Madrid and Paris to enter into negotiations on dealing with the consequences of the conflict.

Despite ETA’s positive response and commitment to a definitive cessation three days later, both governments have dismissed these international calls for dialogue.

Despite Sortu renouncing violence, the Spanish government tried to ban it anyway. After a 15-month legal battle, Sortu was legalised.

In January 2013, a massive demonstration of 115,000 people marched in Donostia/San Sebastian for a peaceful resolution and the repatriation of Basque prisoners. The rally was organised by broad new civil society organisation Herrira (Return Home), which had been founded the previous year to build a public campaign for the end of dispersal.

On September 30 that year, the Spanish security forces launched a major raid against Herrira, arresting 18 activists who were charged with terrorism offences, and shutting down the organisation.

In December 2013, the Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) confirmed its support for a peace process and publicly committed to aiming for repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with Spanish legal framework. This was the first time pro-independence prisoners have acknowledged the authority of the Spanish judicial system.

Madrid responded in January 2014 by arresting and jailing eight mediators of the EPPK, including two  lawyers. It tried to ban the annual demonstration in favour of prisoners’ rights -- this time being organised by Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), the organisation established after the banning of Herrira.

Basque society united to defy the ban. The LAB union, Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Sortu called a new rally for "Human Rights, Peace, Resolution" that drew 130,000 people onto the streets of Bilbao on January 11, 2014.

It was the largest demonstration ever to take place in the history of the Basque Country and the first time since 1998 that the PNV and pro-independence left held such a joint rally.

The next month, a group of international conflict resolution experts, the International Verification Commission, confirmed at a press conference in Bilbao that ETA has begun the process of putting its weapons beyond operational use.

The Spanish government responded by claiming the IVC are "working for ETA", and summoned the six IVC members to appear before the Audiencia Nacional for questioning.

When more than 80,000 people marched again on January 10 this year in favour of the repatriation of prisoners -- organised by yet another new broad campaigning organisation, Sare (Network). This group was established after the banning of Tantaz Tanta.

The Spanish government responded two days later by arresting 16 people. Twelve were lawyers for the prisoners and four were alleged to be members of banned prisoners’ solidarity organisation Herrira.

Three of the lawyers were arrested in Madrid as they were due in court on the first day of a trial of 35 activists alleged to have been members of Batasuna and other banned left parties.

Several are current or former elected representatives, including Sortu spokesperson Pernando Barrena, but the prosecution is seeking between seven and 10 years jail and 10 years’ disqualification from public office.

The Guardia Civil also raided the LAB headquarters and seized the 90,000 euros that had been donated to Sare collection bags by participants in the prisoners’ rights rally. More than 33,000 Basques protested against the lawyers’ arrests in Donostia/San Sebastian on January 17.

Finally, in response to the new international campaign, "Free Otegi; Bring Basque prisoners home" was launched in Brussels on March 24, the Spanish government arrested four prominent prisoners’ rights activists, this time targeting the prisoners’ relatives association.

A convenient conflict

This approach by the Spanish government was described in the Financial Times in March last year as "bizarre" by Jonathan Powell, who was chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process.

But this approach becomes more understandable when we see that Madrid is comfortable with a low-intensity conflict in the Basque Country, which can be used to justify its array of repressive legislation and attacks on rights to freedom of expression and to politically organise across the entire Spanish state.

Madrid is facing the increasing power of the pro-independence political movement in the Basque Country, the rising movement for recognition of a referendum on independence in Catalonia, and the deep opposition to austerity among Spanish society which is shaking the two-party system that has been in place since the 1980s.

This makes the keeping the Basque conflict alive is an appealing prospect for the Spanish government.

In an interview from jail with Mexico’s La Jornada, Otegi said in December 2013: "The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for Spain, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination."

'First prison, then president'

The international statement released at the campaign launch in Brussels says: "We call for the immediate release of Arnaldo Otegi, a man who took risks for peace and democracy and who tirelessly persuaded many others to believe in the power of the word alone as the mean of resolving this conflict.

"His release and the end of the dispersal policy, prior to an agreed early release process, are necessary steps to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region."

Speaking at the launch, Basque musician Fermin Muguruza said: "Nelson Mandela famously said, 'In my country, first you go to prison, then you become president'. We hope that Otegi can repeat those words."

Otegi is due to be released in April next year -- but he has been banned from holding political office for more than a decade beyond that. At the last elections in the Basque Autonomous Community held in October 2012, the pro-independence left coalition EH Bildu won 25% of the vote, coming second behind the conservative Basque Nationalist Party.

Many commentators speculated that had the high-profile and popular Otegi been free to participate as the candidate for Lehendakari (Basque president), EH Bildu would have won the election.

The popularity of the pro-independence left has continued to rise, and EH Bildu topped the poll in the European elections in May last year.

Otegi’s ongoing imprisonment is not only an infringement on his individual human rights, it deprives the Basque movement for a peaceful resolution to the conflict of its most articulate proponent. It also disenfranches hundreds of thousands of Basques who would vote for him as president of the Basque Autonomous Community.

For more information on the campaign and a full list of signatories, see Free Otegi.

[Slight abridged from]

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From GLW issue 1047