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11 January 2007 Edition

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International: Spanish government suspends contact with ETA after bomb

Crisis for Basque Peace Process

By Eoin O Broin

 

On Saturday December 30 at 9.30am (CET) an 800 kilo bomb ripped through Terminal 4 of Madrid’s Barajas airport, bringing the Basque Peace Process to its most serious crisis to date. The attack was claimed on Wednesday of this week by ETA, who blamed the Spanish government for the crisis. Three separate warnings to emergency services earlier that morning saw a massive police operation to clear the Terminal. However, two Ecuadorians, 19-year-old Carlos Palates and 25-year-old Diego Armando Estacio were both killed while sleeping in their cars in the airport car park.

Speaking in the aftermath of the bombing, Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi expressed his condolences to the families of the two men and insisted that the peace process was ‘not broken’. The left nationalist politician called on all political leaders to respond with ‘calm and responsibility’ and work to put the process back on track.

Despite the overwhelming public support for the peace process, argued Otegi, the Spanish government’s failure to meet the ‘basic conditions’ of the process were the primary cause of the ETA attack.

In response the Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero suspended all contacts with ETA, saying: “As the conditions that we laid down have not come about, I have ordered the suspension of all initiatives to develop a dialogue with ETA”. He added that “this attack is incompatible with a permanent ceasefire”.

 

Warnings since August

Since August, Batasuna has been warning publicly that the process was in crisis as the Spanish Government was failing to meet commitments made with ETA in December 2004.

The content of that agreement, while never formally announced, is believed to have contained a number of important elements that enabled the announcement of the ETA ceasefire in March 2006.

Zapatero is believed to have agreed to a twin track process of dialogue – the first ‘technical’ track between his government and the armed organisation dealing with issues such as prisoners, arms and victims; while the other ‘political’ track would see all of the political parties in the Basque Country coming together to discuss the issues which lay at the heart of the conflict, including the Basques’ right to self-determination.

While there was no agreement for repealing the Political Parties Law, used to ban Batasuna, a de facto unbanning was to come into force following any ceasefire, allowing the left nationalist party to play a full role in the political process. Such a de facto unbanning would have meant the end to politically motivated arrests, detentions and trials against the party’s political activists.

However, despite the ETA ceasefire announcement coming as expected in March, and initial optimism at Zapatero’s public response, it was clear that from the outset the process was running into trouble.

To date no all party talks process had taken place due to stalling by the conservative Basque Nationalist Party and Basque section of the Spanish Socialist Party.

 

Basic rights denied

Meanwhile the police, National Court and state prosecutor continued to deny basic civil and political rights in the Basque Country.

In the nine months between March and December, 106 people were arrested, 33 of whom were sent to prison and two tortured. An additional 45 people were called to appear before the National Court in Madrid to respond to charges relating to party political activity. Fifty three political events, such as press conferences, party congresses, peaceful protests and demonstrations, were banned by the Spanish courts. €1.493.000 were paid to the courts bail relating to three separate indictments against leaders of Batasuna including Arnaldo Otegi, who was denied permission to leave the country to travel to Ireland to meet political leaders from all sides of the conflict and learn from their experience of conflict resolution.

In what is one of the most glaring contradictions of the period, 22 political prisoners who had legally completed their sentences continued to be denied release, leading one, Inaki de Juana to go on hunger strike. His case was exacerbated by the decision of the state prosecutor to initiate new proceedings against him for articles written while in Jail and published during the period of the ceasefire.  The prosecutor requested that the court consider jailing the 60-year-old de Juana for an additional 12 years. His initial strike lasted almost 40 days, and was suspended when it looked like a deal had been brokered. However at the time of writing his condition continues to deteriorate as he enters his 46th day and is regularly force-fed by the prison authorities.

 

Process under strain

Taken in this context, it is clear that by December the process was under a considerable amount of strain. Despite the surprise expressed by Zapatero and Batasuna at the timing and scale of the bombing, it had a certain air of inevitability about it.

Whether motivated by electoral expediency or a real desire to address the causes of conflict, the Spanish prime minister’s initial moves towards dialogue surprised many Basque political actors and commentators. His position throughout the course of 2005 led to comparisons with Tony Blair in his early interventions in the Irish process.

However the twin pressures of the Popular Party opposition campaign, in the Spanish parliament and on the country’s streets, coupled with growing dissension from the old guard of his own party, had the effect of limiting his room for manoeuvre. His inability or unwillingness to restrain Popular Party appointed judges in the National Court and the increasingly hard line position of his Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba increasingly meant that Zapatero, whether in appearance or reality, was no longer setting the agenda.

Indeed in the wake of last week’s Madrid bombing, and despite statements from Zapatero which appeared to keep the door open to ETA, Rubalcaba and other senior party figures such as General Secretary Jose Bono have declared the process dead, adopting the anti-terrorist rhetoric of the Popular Party.

Meanwhile Batasuna stressed the need for political leaders to work together to put the process back on track. Whether the voices of reason win out over those of reaction will depend as much on the outcome of the Spanish local government elections due for March of this year. Any advance for the Popular Party would strengthen the hand of the rejectionists on the right and within the Socialist Party.

The impact of the Madrid bombing on this balance of forces is as yet unclear. What is without doubt, however, in the unanimity among Basque nationalists in favour of dialogue and conflict resolution. The question for the immediate future is whether politicians in Madrid can respond positively.

 

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