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9 October 1997 Edition

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A very special court hearing in Madrid

Teresa Toda reports on the opening of a trial which could see the entire National Executive of Herri Batasuna sent to prison

The three Magistrates of Section II of the Spanish Supreme Court were stunned last Monday morning as the first session of the hearing against the leadership of the Basque independence party Herri Batasuna (HB) began. HB's defence lawyers told the court that the president of the tribunal was ``contaminated'' and could not be a fair judge.

The Spanish magistrates, politicians, high-ranking police officers and media could have expected anything but that. Herri Batasuna rejected judge José Augusto de Vega because his daughter, a policewoman, has recently been assigned to the department of Ricardo Martin Fluxa, number 2 in the Ministry of the Interior. She was specially and personally picked out for the job by the leading member of the Ministry.

Mr De Vega's daughter still lives at the family home, and HB pointed out that because of such a close family relationship, De Vega had ``personal interests'' in the outcome of the trial.

After an emergency meeting, the Supreme Court threw out HB's objections, and the trial will continue next Monday. Nevertheless, the incident shows how special this trial is and how political.

Herri Batasuna's leadership, the Mesa Nacional (National Table), has 23 members. All have been charged with ``collaboration with an armed band'', a very broad charge which can take in everything, or nothing.

Although it has been the conservative government of José Maria Asner that has finally taken HB to court, the proceedings were begun under the socialist government of Felipe González in February 1996. The basis for legal proceedings was a video-tape in which three masked members of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Basque independence armed organisation, explained in simple words the contents of their Alternativa Democratica (Democratic Alternative), a proposal for a peace process for the Basque Country, not a call to arms. The Alternative had been made public by ETA in April 1995, but in 96 the video-tape was being used to spread it over Euskai Herria (the Basque Country) and as a means of opening up debate in villages, towns, universities, and so on. Herri Batasuna wanted to include it in its TV spot during the general election campaign, and that triggered off an absurd persecution.

The Audiencia Nacional (equivalent of the Diplock Courts in the Six Counties) issued warrants forbidding screenings of the tape and sent Spanish police, Guardia Civil and Ertzaina (Basque version of the RUC, ``native'' Basque police) after the tape. Some incidents had a touch of humour, as in Navarra, where a very right-wing politician, Jaime Ignacio Del Burgo, rang the police to say that he knew the tape was to be shown in a certain bar on a certain night. The police dutifully went at the stated hour and found themselves in the middle of a Carnival-night supper, in a place where there wasn't even a video machine...

Not all events were so humorous, of course. Cops laid their hands on some videos, but in any case there was nothing ``underground'' about the screenings, which were publicly advertised by HB. The weirdest thing about it all is that by the time the Audiencia Nacional (prompted by the Spanish government of Felipe Gonzalez) declared war on the tape, there had been over 200 public screenings of it, and nothing had happened, apart from the fact that more Basques had direct knowledge of its contents and viewpoints.

In February 1996 there were general elections, and ETA had shot Francisco Tomás y Valiente, who had been one of the men (all men) who drew up the Spanish Constitution in 1978, and Fernando Múgica, a member of the Socialist party (PSOE) in the Basque Country and brother of the ex-minister of Justice Enrique Mugica, who pushed the policy of dispersion of Basque political prisoners throughout the gaols of the Spanish State. So things were pretty hot, and besides, PSOE's opponents, the conservative PP, was laying on thick the ``we would be tough on them'' card. PSOE had to be toughest.

Elections came, elections went, and PP took power. Things seemed to stall for a time, but in September 1996 the Supreme Court decided to try the whole of the Mesa Nacional for collaborating with ETA by ``lending'' the armed organisation part of HB's electoral TV time, as well as for HB's communiqués after Tomás y Valiente's and Múgica's deaths, which the Court deems contain an ``apology for terrorism'', an even wider and more nondescript charge than ``collaboration''.

The Mesa Nacional was called up by the Supreme Court in February 97 to be notified formally of the accusations, but all 23 said they would not voluntarily appear in a Spanish Court. So, one by one, they were arrested and taken to court by the police, and from there to jail, which they left in May 1997 after the Court had reduced bail to a ``reasonable'' amount.

The trial was finally set for 6 October.

But it is far from being a normal or a fair trial. From Prime Minister Aznar down, almost all members of the Spanish government have expressed their confidence that the Court will impose a fairly long jail sentence on the Mesa Nacional (the prosecutor demands from 6 to 22 years). Opposition spokespersons have expressed similar ``hopes''. After last summer's hullabaloo after the abduction and death of councillor Miguel Angel Blanco, pressure has been mounting against HB (and, it must be said, against Basque nationalism in general). The Spanish mass media are really in hysterics over it, and HB militants are presented as bloodthirsty brainless monsters, devoid of all political reason, or ideals.

So, the government is constantly saying that judges must respond to ``social feeling'' on the matter - and that ``social sensibility'' is reflected in the now famous cry of ``let's go for them!'' It was the cry which rang out in Madrid in a big demonstration against ETA and HB after Blanco's death, and which in fact gives carte blanche to media, politicians, so-called intellectuals, and so forth, against ETA and HB, and even allows deaths such as that of two ETA members three weeks ago in Bilbao - shot by the Civil Guard in an ambush - to go unquestioned. Even the official version had contradictions, but all parties bound by the ``anti-terrorist pacts'' took the official line. No questions asked.

In that climate, paradoxically enough, press and politicians turned on HB spokesman Karmela Landa last Sunday for saying in a meeting that ``judges don't know what we will be doing'' and ``will find themselves faced with surprises''. The usual choir said that Landa was ``pressing'' judges and almost threatening them.

Political trial

Herri Batasuna has said over and over again that this is a political trial. Demonstrations in the main cities of the Basque Country underlined this fact over the last weekend. HB has been campaigning long and hard against the trial. From international contacts to explain what is happening and what are the real contents of the famous videotape, to local meetings and actions in villages and different institutions. The main Basque parties - PNV and EA - are not at all comfortable with the trial, but they have done nothing against it; moreover, they even instructed their councillors and elected representatives not to second motions presented by HB against the trial. Nevertheless, PNV spokespersons did say that, in their view, the Spanish government was ``electrifying the air'' around the trial by stressing that the outcome should be jail sentences, and denounced ``pressure'' on the judges from the government side.

An opinion poll published last Sunday by EGIN gave an idea of how this trial is seen by the Basque people. Only 30% think it is ``just'' to try HB; 35% think it isn't, and 35% ``don't know''. A meagre 21% think the Court will be ``impartial''; 47% think it won't be, and 32% don't know. Finally, 55% ``don't know'' what would be a just sentence, 25% think the Mesa Nacional should be absolved and 19% prefer to see them sentenced.

It really is a very special trial. HB spokesperson Floren Aoiz said last Sunday that it is a ``big test'' for the future of the conflict between the Spanish state and the Basque Country. ``It will be a test to know if there are going to be more steps towards an intensification of the conflict or, if, on the other hand, as in Ireland, there is going to be a search for mechanisms of solution. No doubt a jail sentence would complicate the scene; it would introduce new elements of tension, and, above all, it would give more reasons to those who think there are no peaceful democratic channels to defend certain ideas, such as independence''.

Teresa Toda is International editor of EGIN, the Basque left wing daily newspaper

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