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11 November 1999 Edition

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Basque Hunger Strike

Twenty Basque political prisoners in jails in France and in the Basque Country went on hunger strike on Monday, 1 November. The Basque prisoners announced that this hunger strike will be carried to the end unless their five demands are met by the French and Spanish governments: ``There are lots of reasons forcing us to carry out this protest. We consider it the only way to attain our rights once and for all.''

Their final goal is the release of all Basques imprisoned for political reasons, so they can take part in the process opened by the Lizarra-Garazi Agreement. The prisoners stated: ``The release of political prisoners is our first and main goal. We, as citizens and political activists, have a right to take part in the political process because we have fought and we are still fighting for it. Neither Spain, nor France can deny us this right... Our objective is the Freedom of the Basque Country and we will keep fighting for it from within the prisons.''

Pending the release of all POWs, the prisoners are seeking recognition of their political status, ``a treatment consistent with our political activism''; the transfer of the almost 600 Basque political prisoners to jails within the Basque Country; the release of those prisoners suffering from chronic or terminal diseases and of those who have already served their sentences under Spanish Law. They also want an end to ongoing extradition procedures and expulsions of political activists to Spain carried out by the French government.

In their statement, the Basque prisoners highlighted how the French and Spanish governments have tried to undermine them through the ``dispersion'' policy that isolates political prisoners thousands of kilometres away from the Basque Country, ``punishing our friends and families''.

The statement also refers to the human rights abuses suffered by prisoners, who are denied access to basic medical care, as in the case of Esteban Esteban Nieto who, though suffering from terminal cancer, was released only weeks before he died.

The Basque prisoners have called on Basque society, political parties, trade unions and community groups to fight for the prisoner's rights. Five elected representatives of the pro-independence coalition, Euskal Herritarok, started a fast on Tuesday 2 November in solidarity with the prisoners.

Commenting on the political process, the prisoners group points out that ``this process can bring the bases for the freedom of the Basque Country'' and that the responsibility of the process is on the Basque society as a whole.

In response to the prisoners' action, the Spanish Home Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, said that the Spanish government has no intention of changing its prison policy ``just because of a hunger strike''.

Australia says No

The Australian electorate has rejected, by a 55% to 45% margin, a prosal to ditch the British monarchy in favour of a republic. The decision revealed a divide between suburban, regional and rural Australia, which predominantly rejected change, and urban areas, more economically secure and less afraid of constitutional change.

The wording of the referendum, which ruled out a president directly elected by the people, managed to unite monarchists and some republicans in the No camp and was a major factor in the defeat.

Liberal constituencies voted for the republic, as did the Labour-dominated inner city and ethnic heartland. The no vote was highest in poorer constituencies dominated by conservative rural workers and pensioners.

The strongest criticism of the result came from Labour's Paul Keating, who put the republic on the agenda as prime minister but kept out of the current campaign. ``This result,'' he said, ``has been delivered by a campaign of lies, an alliance of convenience with naïve or self-serving republicans, and the active support of John Howard (Australia's Liberal Prime Minister), who manipulated the referendum to ensure its defeat''.

A disinclination to change, allied to the belief, particularly among lower earners, that a republic would do nothing to improve their lives, together with a chronic distrust of politicians, were also strong factors in the referendum's defeat.

Instead of making the referendum a vote on the status of the English queen, the No campaign run by Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) successfully managed to turn the vote into a ballot on the political ruling class. ACM referred to the republican model proposed as ``a politicians' republic'', highlighting the fact that the president would have been elected by the government, something that made some republicans turn away from the Yes camp.

David Elliot, campaign manager for ACM, following advice from Australian Prime Minister John Howard's close confidante Nick Minchin, decided to run an aggressive campaign. The resultant ``scare campaign'' took many forms, most notoriously a speech by Elliot comparing Australia under a republic to the instability of pre-World War II Germany.

In the end, the ACM campaign delivered for Prime Minister John Howard the results he wanted. The issue of the republic will now be removed from the political agenda of the Howard government. ``The Australian people have spoken. They have spoken very clearly, and it's now over. Let's get back to other things,'' he said.

A new referendum could now take decades.

Western Sahara

A referendum to decide the fate of the inhabitants of Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco in the 1970s, might be postponed once again for another two or three years. The main obstacle to the referendum taking place on the set date - July 2000 - are the nearly 80,000 government-inspired appeals presented against the vote register proposed by the UN last July. This move by the Moroccan government has been strongly criticised by Frente Polisario, which is fighting for the independence of the territory. In one of their latest statements, Frente Polisario has announced that a new delay on the referendum will force it to call off Its ceasefire.


On Monday, 8 November, representatives from the Palestinian National Authority and the Israeli government returned to the negotiation table to decide the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli diplomat Oded Eran and Palestinian Information minister Yasir Abed Rabo led the negotiating teams. They plan to draw up a final framework paving the way for an official treaty to be signed in September 2000, which will spell the future of Jerusalem and those territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 war.

An Phoblacht
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