5 September 2002 Edition

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Basques march against Batasuna ban

Thousands of Basque citizens expressed their outrage over the banning of Basque pro-independence party Batasuna last weekend, taking to the streets of Basque cities, towns and villages. In Donostia, three thousand people marched behind a banner that read "Down with Fascism - Basque Country forward". During the march, the demonstrators expressed their frustration at the banning of Batasuna, shouting slogans against Judge Baltasar Garzón, who issued the order, and against Basque moderate nationalist parties in government, and the Popular Party and Socialist Party - the main promoters of the banning.

There were also demonstrations in support of Batasuna in Leiza, Elorrio, Gernika, Legazpi, Sestao, Balmaseda, Orduña, Eskoriatza and Zestoa.

Batasuna faces two parallel moves against it. First is judge Baltasar Garzón's temporary suspension, an, running parallel, the Spanish government's push for a complete ban.

On Monday 26 September, Judge Garzón suspended all activities of Batasuna for three years and issued an order to close all the party's offices in the Spanish state, while he looks for evidence to proceed with terrorism charges against Batasuna. At the same time, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution calling on the Supreme Court to initiate a process for the definitive banning of the party.

Such measures have been unknown in the Spanish state since the beginning of Franco's dictatorship in 1939. The ruling Popular Party, with strong links with that dictatorship, has, "in the name of democracy", now acted to ban a party that holds 12% of the vote in the Basque Country. Batasuna, which controls town councils in the Basque Country, received 143,000 votes in the 2001 Basque parliamentary elections.

So far, a total of 21 Batasuna offices have been shut. Spanish police closed all Batasuna offices in the province of Nafarroa on Monday 26 August, while the Basque autonomous police carried out the closure of offices in the provinces of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba in the following days. The Basque autonomous police also closed down two offices in Bilbao which were being used by Etxerat (Association of Relatives of Basque Political Prisoners) and Torturaren Aurkako Taldea (Group Against Torture), though their activities are independent of Batasuna's. This is not the first time that the police have closed their offices. On a previous occasion, Garzón ordered their closure as part of the banning against Askatasuna - the organisation that defends the rights of Basque political prisoners. They were reopened after some weeks as it was demonstrated that Etxerat and TAT were two independent organisations.

Etxerat has already explained that the closure will impact on the rights of political prisoners, as Etxerat organised journeys to prisons and visits to the prisoners.

The crackdown on Batasuna has been applauded by the Spanish press, which has been enthusiastically supportive of the government's repressive policies. However, some politicians and foreign commentators have warned that the banning could backfire by stoking tensions in the Basque Country and radicalising Batasuna supporters, as it closes the only channel for negotiations.

Despite growing opposition to the suspension of the party in the Basque Country, the Spanish government is set on going ahead with its action against Batasuna. The cabinet decided in its latest meeting to forward the resolution passed in parliament to the Supreme Court, which will initiate procedures for the definitive banning of the party.

There are significant question marks over the legality of Garzón's prosecution against Batasuna. Garzón backs the suspension of Batasuna under article 129 of the Spanish Penal Code. This article is supposed to be applied to enterprises and private associations. According to Basque journalist Javier Ortiz, "that article never mentions political parties... a political party is the product of the exercise of a fundamental right: the right to political association. One judge cannot forbid thousands of people from exercising a fundamental right".

The evidence on which Garzón is basing his case is very weak and it is this evidence that the Spanish government wants to use in its case for a complete ban, due to be heard by the Spanish Supreme Court in the next few days.

Garzón is using as evidence of links to terrorist activities the inclusion of political prisoners as Batasuna party candidates for election. Their candidature, however, was in every case approved by the Spanish and Basque electoral boards and by parliaments and town councils and is not illegal under Spanish legislation.

Garzón's charges are also based on demonstrations organised by left-wing Basque nationalists in support of the rights of political prisoners - some of which were also backed by moderate nationalist parties not being prosecuted by Garzón. Other evidence against Batasuna includes demonstrations called after the killing of MP Josu Muguruza (leader of Herri Batasuna assassinated by off-duty policemen hours before the representatives of the party attended for the first time ever a session of the Spanish parliament); against the imprisonment of Batasuna's National Executive (also the responsibility of Garzón); and after the discovery of the bodies of Lasa and Zabala, two members of ETA who were kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Spanish security forces and whose remains were only found ten years after their disappearance.

Everything seems to indicate that Garzón is planning to hold responsible anyone who has at any time served as a member of the national executive of Herri Batasuna, Euskal Herritarrok or Batasuna since 1978 for promoting, supporting or defending people arrested, charged, imprisoned, sentenced or extradited for what he considers activities related to terrorism.

In recent days, the Basque autonomous government approved a demonstration in support of Batasuna for this Saturday, 7 September, in Bilbao, but Judge Garzón intervened and promptly banned it. He says the ban on demonstrations refers not only to those called by Batasuna, but also to those in support of Batasuna, irrespective of who is organising them. The demonstration was called by two individuals, who complied with all legal requirements. Under the terms of Garzón's suspension, Batasuna is prohibited from calling for demonstrations, holding meetings, or setting up offices. Their elected representatives are also barred from running for election, although they do hold their seats they already won.

Struggle will go on: Otegi

From the point of view of Arnaldo Otegi, Batasuna's chief spokesperson before Judge Garzón decided to order the party's suspension - the banning of the left-wing pro-independence coalition is an attack on everyone in the Basque Country.

"It is clear that apart from the electoral and political impact of the banning, the State's objective is to behead the pro-independence left movement," he said, in an interview with Basque daily newspaper, Gara. "I believe that we left-wing people and left-wing nationalists, will make a huge mistake if we allow Garzón's judicial decisions set the limits of our possibilities. In the Basque Country, there are hundreds of thousands of women and men who are pro-independence and left-wing, and they will find the mechanism they need to articulate their social and political dynamic."

Otegi condemned the arrest of some pro-independence activists for holding what the Basque police described as "illegal meetings". He said that through the actions of the Basque police, Basques "will be able to check whether the Basque Autonomous government, instead of defending the rights of all Basque people, is ready to collaborate with the Spanish state in the violation of universally recognised rights like the right to demonstration, the right to association and the right to political participation.

"It has always been very hard to fight for the Basque Country. There are plenty of examples in the past and present. I only can reiterate that the struggle is worth it, that the suffering is worth it, because it is our responsibility that this conflict is not inherited by the following generation.

"Many times I have asked Basque people to remember our history. Our great-grandfathers were robbed of their laws and their wealth. Our grandfathers and fathers were robbed of whatever they had left and were imprisoned. We have also been robbed and imprisoned on several occasions. The pro-independence and left-wing people are not prepared to suffer in the same way while the same people profit from that suffering. They do not want the next generation to experience the political conflict and, for that reason, we are going to do everything possible to find a solution.

"Personally, I thank women and men for their defence of Batasuna offices in villages and towns. We have witnessed really exciting scenes of dignified resistance. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. It has touched us all because it is the warmth of the people that keeps us going.

"And I want to call on the people to keep that dignity and to participate in any protests that, on an individual or group level, are being called for this Saturday, 7 September. The future is for the Basque People. We have to build the Basque Country every day.

"In the media, the international repercussions of what is happening in the Basque Country are huge. This has been one of the left-wing nationalists' objectives: to place the conflict on the international stage. Mister Aznar has made a huge contribution in that sense. Basque people are on the front pages of the newspapers around the world and I feel that the banning has been widely criticised. This was made evident by the withdrawal of a European Parliament motion supporting the banning of Batasuna.

"The Spanish state wants to limit Basque political activity to the Basque borders, and what the left-wing pro-independence people have to do is to place the conflict with the Spanish and French states in the European context. We have to use the media to place possible solutions on the table, and solutions in the context of peace, democracy and sovereignty for the Basque Country."

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