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27 February 2003 Edition

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Outrage as Basque paper is suppressed

At this time of debate around sanctions over human rights abuses, it is worth reminding ourselves that human rights standards in some EU countries are far from what governments would like us to believe. Spain is a fine example, with a long record of a dirty war against the Basques, combined with cultural and political repression.

On 20 February, the only Basque-language daily newspaper, Euskaldunon Egunkaria, was shut down and ten of its current or former staff - including the editor, Martxelo Otamendi, were arrested on suspicion of "supporting an armed group". Spanish paramilitary police, the Guardia Civil, carried out a large-scale raid on the newspaper's headquarters in Andoain (Gipuzkoa), and local offices in IruÒea (Pamplona), Bilbo (Bilbao) and Gasteiz (Vitoria), which they then proceeded to close down.

Those arrested in the raid and held incommunicado were questioned by Spanish judge Juan del Olmo on Monday 24 February. The judge did not allow their lawyers to attend this preliminary questioning and they were forced to avail of free legal aid services. Only one relative of each detainee was allowed to see them before they were questioned.

To this has to be added the worrying health condition of one of the detainees. Pello Zubiria, deputy editor of the magazine Argia, which he recently left due to ill health, and a founding member of Egunkaria, was reported to have been taken to hospital after four days in custody. Zubiria, who suffers from an incurable and chronic condition, has not been allowed any visits and no information whatsoever has been released to his wife.

By Tuesday, 25 February, Judge del Olmo released four of the ten detainees on bail - Luis Goia (film producer and founding member of the paper), Fermín Lazkano (responsible for the company Plazagunea, which provides computerised services), Inma Gomila (founding member and manager director) and editor Martxelo Otamendi - all accused of collaborating with ETA.

However, del Olmo has accused five of those arrested - Xabier Alegria (member of the Udalbiltza assembly of elected municipal representatives of the Basque Country, who has also been also charged in the case against the newspaper Egin), Jesuit priest Txema Auzmendi (Secretary of the Board of Directors and Deputy Director of Radio Popular of San Sebastian), Xabier Oleaga (deputy editor of Egunkaria responsible for external communications with the Federation of Basque language schools), Juan Mari Torre Aldai (Managing Director of Euskaldunon Egunkaria and Editor of the Basque literary magazine Jakin ) and IÒaki Uria (Chairman of the Board of Directors of Euskaldunon Egunkaria) - of membership of an armed organisation. They have been remanded to Soto del Real prison, near Madrid. The judge has yet to decide on the status of Peio Zubiria, who could not be questioned due to his ill-health.

A political decision

Since the right-wing Popular Party won Spanish elections in 1996, Basques have experienced the banning of a political party and the closure of two newspapers, magazines and a radio station. Comparable repression was only known during Franco's dictatorship, when he set to annihilate Basque culture and traditions.

Today, Franco's heirs are following suit. Basque organisations supporting the rights of political prisoners, groups promoting political and social alternatives, or those advancing and teaching Basque culture and language, are being targeted by Spanish PM José María Aznar's policies.

Aznar's government, along with a judiciary that is far from independent, is determined to ban and prosecute any Basque organisation that encourages the use of the Basque language or speaks out for Basque political rights.

The accusation against Egunkaria is once more of 'terrorism'. This 'terrorist link' has been used before to close down Basque media outlets. In June 1998, Judge Garzón ordered the closure of newspaper Egin and radio station Egin Irratia, and the arrest of dozens of people for supposed "collaboration or membership of an armed group".

All detainees have been released on bail, and in some cases, the charges have been dropped, because of lack of evidence. Five years later the case has not been yet brought to court, but the arrests achieved their aim of closing down Egin for good.

In 2001, Judge Baltasar Garzón ordered the closure of the magazine Ardi Beltza and the arrest of its editor, Pepe Rei, who was charged with supporting terrorism. Rei was released on bail weeks later and is currently awaiting trial, but like in the case of Egin, the magazine Ardi Beltza has been effectively proscribed without the mediation of a legal process.

In both cases, the decisions of Garzón had the stamp of Aznar, who saw Egin and Ardi Beltza as thorns in his side. In the case of Egin, Aznar's statement after the closure - "they thought we would not dare to close that paper" - was an arrogant admission of his government's interference in the judicial process.

So, when Judge del Olmo ordered the closure of the offices of Egunkaria and used the argument that the paper "had been created and supported by ETA terrorists", everyone suspected that Aznar's government was behind it. The evidence came in the form of a joint statement produced by the special court responsible for the closure of the paper and by the Home Office Department.

This is the reason why the company that owns Egunkaria and the head of the Basque Autonomous government's Justice Department have sent two official complaints to the Spanish Judicial Power General Council calling for an official investigation into political interference in the case.

To protest the closure of the daily newspaper, which many see as an attack against the Basque language and identity, tens of thousands of people gathered in the city of Donostia (San Sebastian) on Saturday 22 February in what was the biggest demonstration ever recorded in that city.

The organisers - Kontseilua, an umbrella group for all cultural and social organisations that support and promote the use of the Basque language - estimated that 100,000 people took part.

Despite the repression, the paper has gone on. In an action reminiscent of the production of Republican News during the early 1970s, the journalists, with the support of other Basque media, put together a 16-page publication under the name of Egunero. The first issue was in newsagents the day after the closure. Seventy-five thousand copies of the new newspaper were sold out in matter of hours on the day of the demonstration.

Members of all political parties, with the exception of the ruling PP, turned up for the demonstration, though in the case of the councillors of the Spanish Socialist Party, they attended in a personal capacity.

Repression and censorship

The closure of Egunkaria was criticised by many organisations worldwide.

Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Equality and Justice, Bairbre de Brún, speaking at the beginning of Slógadh Shinn Féin in Armagh, criticised the closure, calling on the Spanish to bring an end to repression and open dialogue.

"There is growing concern at the deterioration of the situation and the absence of any dialogue or process to move the situation forward," she said. "The banning of Batasuna and a whole range of Basque language and culture organisations and the wide-ranging measures of repression and censorship in force right across Basque society are wrong and should end immediately."

"Our experience of conflict resolution has shown that the only way that progress will occur is on the basis of inclusive dialogue based on equality and respect. It is crucial that channels of communication are kept open even in the most difficult of circumstances. I am calling on the Spanish authorities to bring an end to repression and open dialogue immediately."

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders and many other media organisations have also voiced criticism. "When the only Basque language paper is closed like this, it casts a shadow over press freedom within the Basque language community," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, the world's largest journalist group.

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