19 August 1999 Edition
The Basque prison experience
An interview with Iñaki Ibabe Guridi
By Soledad Galiana and Inaki Irigoien
IÑAKI IBABE GURIDI is a former political prisoner from Bergara in the Basque Country. Ibabe spent 17-and-a-half years in jail. Arrested in February 1980, he was sentenced for his membership of the Basque pro-independence group, ETA. He was released on 14 August 1997. He was a victim of the policy of dispersion imposed by the Spanish government on Basque political prisoners from the end of the 1980s. Prisoners were sent hundreds, even thousands, of miles away from the Basque Country, and were then further isolated in different wings of prisons. Ibabe was incarcerated in seven different jails spread across the Spanish state.
An Phoblacht: How did you cope with the dispersion policy?
Ibabe: My case has been different. Since the politics of dispersion began to be applied, prisoners have been frequently moved between prisons. But I spent nearly eight years in Orense jail, until they decided they were going to release me. It was then that they sent me back to Nanclares in the Basque Country.
At the beginning, all the prisoners were in the same prison, the high-security prison in Herrera de la Mancha. Then the Socialist government started the dispersion of Basque political prisoners and this took place in two stages. Between those stages, negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government took place in Argel. The negotiations failed because the Spanish establishment thought that the prisoners were a major factor in the negotiation process and that it was not convenient for the government that we were all together. That was the moment when they decided to scatter the prisoners everywhere, transferring them to the different jails in the Spanish state and North Africa. The bulk of the process took place in about six weeks. After this, the dispersion within the prison walls took place with the political prisoners being sent to different wings.
AP: Have there been any changes in the prisoners' situation since the beginning of the peace process?
I: From the information that I have, in most cases the situation is becoming more problematic. There are hunger-strikes and other sort of protests. There has not been a real change. In some jails the situation is more relaxed, but in general situation is still the same. In some of the prisons, political prisoners are allowed to be together in the same wings.
AP: How do political prisoners see the new political process in the Basque Country since the Lizarra-Garazi Agreement between Basque nationalist forces?
I: I have lived through the whole process from outside, but I can see there are fundamental difference between the time of the Argel negotiations and now. At that time, at the end of the 1980s, the people did not believe that the talks were going anywhere. Today, there is a lot of hope. But being in jail you cannot be over-optimistic. You have to keep your feet on the ground. And the only way not to be trampled over is to analyse the process on a day-to-day basis. So, the mood cannot be described as optimistic or pessimistic. People are expectant more than anything.
AP: What part are political prisoners playing in the process?
The prisoners are being informed and are following the process, but for the former prisoners things are different. Former prisoners get involved in different campaigns. They stop being a focus point as they scatter through the different organisations. But within the prison walls, the debate is ongoing. I remember that during the Argel negotiations the internal debate was very intense. It is clear that nowadays the situation is very different as, at the time of the Argel meeting, we were all together; now prisoners are scattered in small numbers which means that the discussion process is a very slow one. But prisoners are getting first-hand information.
AP: How do you see the future of the peace process?
I: From a personal point of view, I do not think everyone was ready for this process. I do not know what is going to happen. It is possible that the whole thing will change really fast or in the worst of the scenarios there will be a breakdown. We have to remember that in the Irish process that breakdown took place.
AP: Is the conservative government ready to step forward and talk?
I: What they are doing is acting on two different levels. In one sense they have to show a position of strength, but at the same time they have to find a solution to the conflict. While the interior minister, Mayor Oreja, is giving the line of stubborn Spanish nationalism, on the other hand, there are some people from the same government trying to find a solution. The problem is that there are elections pending next year.
AP: After the recent release from prison of the national executive of Herri Batasuna and now that there is a new national executive in place in Euskal Herritarrok, what is going to happen?
I: There will be an adjustment. I think it is not possible that all of them will stay as members of the executive, so there will be people from the old and new executives that will continue in their positions and some others will move to other areas of work within the movement.
AP: The Basque Country was divided between the French and Spanish states. How is the situation in Iparralde (the North Basque Country)?
I: In Iparralde the situation is a lot more complex. But it would not be right to sit down to negotiate and leave Iparralde to one side because that would mean that we will have to get into a new struggle in some years' time to reclaim Iparralde.
AP: Here in Ireland there was a continuous exchange between Ireland and South Africa during the Irish peace process. Do you think this kind of exchange could be useful and possible in the Basque case?
I: I think it is correct to think that the experience of other nations and other peoples could enrich our own process. To some extent, it is possible to learn certain things but, in the Basque case, it would be unthinkable to envisage the involvement of any United States politician in the process. However, the contacts between Euskal Herritarrok and Sinn Féin exist and we can learn from each other's experiences..