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Analysis. On Saturday, 80,000 people rallied in Basque country to denounce the mistreatment of ETA prisoners.

Basque country rallies against Spanish human rights abuses

Salatzen Dut! (“I denounce,” in Basque) was the slogan flooding the streets of Bilbao on Saturday in a mass demonstration to condemn the political imprisonment of Basque men and women.

Under heavy rain, 80,000 people (out of the approximately three million living in Basque country) pointed their finger at the human rights violations against political prisoners, the Spanish government’s boycott of the peace process and the criminalization of the defense of human rights. The crowd was led by the Mirentxin, the solidarity network of vans offered to families for weekly visits to their relatives behind bars. These families emotionally marched at the front of the masses.

The event was convened by the citizen network Sare, a social platform that unites diverse feelings and ideological positions around the defense of human rights of political prisoners. Despite the diversity of social and political actors who participated in the event, Podemos did not participate officially. But Iñigo Errejon, spokesman for the Congress of Deputies, and other party leaders took part and invited others to participate in an individual capacity. The Basque Nationalist Party, which now leads the provincial government, did not join by the initiative. Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the Basque separatist coalition Bildu, said: “That was a favor to the immobility of the Partido Popular.”

On Oct. 20, 2011, three men in balaclavas, under an ETA poster, appeared on video to announce their ultimate ceasefire. Since then, the government of the Partido Popular, with the support of the socialist PSOE and other conservative forces, has not changed its attitude toward the demands for democracy and self-determination of the Basque leftist forces. On the contrary, by using the scapegoat of “terrorism,” it would seem that the repressive apparatus of the Spanish state is narrowing the margins of viability to other parties and social and political movements in the Basque Country and beyond.

Last month, the CUP, or Popular Unity Candidacy, was hit with several arrests. The Catalan independence and anti-capitalist party that has occupied important institutions in Catalonia and practices civil disobedience and unilateralism to seek secession from Spain. But repression is tightening around independence movements. With the civilian safety law — the notorious Ley Mordaza (gag law) — which came into force in July 2015, all expressions of disobedience and dissent are severely limited. It appears as though the intention was to duplicate and extend the state of emergencies applied to the separatist movement, which inflicted lacerating wounds across Basque society, to the social and political context as a whole.

In Basque country, no living generation has known a period in history without hundreds of political prisoners. Now, almost five years since ETA’s decision to end armed activity, there has been no real step forward toward a political resolution of the Basque conflict. It is a paradoxical and deeply frustrating political landscape. Several experts have observed that Spain is the only place where an armed organization wants to begin a process of disarmament and the government is the one throwing up obstacles, thereby preventing demilitarization.

In this context, the repressive model used against the independence movement in the Basque Country has been extended to organizations of solidarity with political prisoners. Several lawyers and civilians have been arrested. This strategy aims to criminalize the defense of the human rights of nearly 400 inmates in several Spanish, French, Portuguese, British and Swiss prisons, convicted of being members of ETA or of having contributed, in one way or another, to political violence.

The Spanish institutions apply special discriminatory prison rules to the Basque political prisoners. Their dispersion throughout almost 80 different prisons is an inhumane strategy of attrition that forces families to travel thousands of kilometers to visit the detainees. This policy is contrary to the principles of the Spanish Penal Code, which states the right of the detainee to the “fulfillment of the conviction wherever the inmate’s social roots are.”

On Saturday, the Basque newspaper Gara pointed out that 81 percent of inmates are imprisoned at least 500 kilometers away from home. During the last three years, there have been 22 car accidents involving 86 relatives of detainees. In total, the dispersion policy has caused 17 fatal victims, according to a statement released by the Basque internationalist organization Askapena.

In addition to condemning the discriminatory prison assignments, a recent study by several Basque academic and political institutions documented 4,000 reported cases of torture and critical situations in which seriously ill prisoners are denied freedom. The disconcerting picture illustrates the need for a decisive advance toward the recognition of all the victims of an armed conflict that has lasted more than 50 years and whose political causes have not yet been resolved.

Several sectors of the Basque separatist left emphasize the political nature of the dispersion strategy and the violation of human rights. They call for a more radical position focusing on the amnesty issue and the need to build a more confrontational policy with the Spanish state. The electoral process that began after ETA’s decision to lay down their arms has not borne much fruit. The institutional game of alliances has enabled Sortu, the independentist Socialist Party, a large quantitative growth; however, it has not made great strides forward in the qualitative construction of a political movement really capable of changing power relations.

The stagnation of the process of social transformation and national self-determination can be perceived on several fronts. For this reason, social networks, youth organizations, trade unions and the Sortu party have begun in recent months an internal debate that will lead to the redefinition of the shape and relationships between the different political parties of the Basque left. This debate starts from a major strength point: the wide popular support, once again demonstrated by the impressive demonstration Saturday.

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