What is going on with the fight for Basque prisoners' rights?

  • This year, once more, thousands of people met in Bilbao to demand that Basque prisoners be brought to the Basque Country. At present, five years after ETA ended its armed struggle, there are 349 Basques in Spanish and French prisons. There are also hundreds of refugees and deportees who cannot return home. How can the knot be untied? We spoke with several people with close links to prison. They do not want to see the subject rot on the branch. 

Lander Arbelaitz Mitxelena @larbelaitz
2017ko urtarrilaren 19a
Thousands protested in Bilbao to demand that Basque prisoners be brought to the Basque Country. (Dani Blanco)

"I ask the State to end dispersion and obey the law". ETA victim Rosa Rodero's words caused a great stir. She stepped outside the simple ideas often many people outside the Basque Country have. For the second consecutive year, she has demanded that Basque prisoners' human rights should not be trampled on. She says that most victims think the same as she does, although she is the only one to say it in public.

“The success of the demonstrations makes us carry on”, says Sare spokesperson Joseba Azkarraga. "There are a lot of people in Sare; it goes beyond specific political ideologies; it calls for human rights, peace and a solution to the conflict", he says. He thinks the demand to stop dispersion is widening.

Thousand in Bilbao asking the repatriation of Basque prisoners. (Dani Blanco)

Lawyers, ETA and GAL victims, relatives of ill prisoners, former prisoners and people from the world of culture have come together to carry the banner: For human rights, peace and a solution to the conflic; Bring the Basque Prisoners to the Basque Country. The demonstration was supported by the political parties in the EH Bildu coalition, and by ELA, LAB, CCOO and Steilas trade unions. Although PNV, Podemos and PSE decided not to support it, they have stated publicly that they are in favour of Basque prisoners being brought to the Basque Country. To mention a couple of significant supporters, Podemos’ general secretary Nagua Alba was in Bilbao in a personal capacity, and Podemos political secretary Iñigo Errejon called for people to go to the demonstration.

Relatives' and friends' determination

"We are relatives and friends of Basque political prisoners who have been dispersed over the last 28 years. It wasn't our decision: it's just what we are. When our relatives were arrested and imprisoned, we decided not to abandon them. We look for people involved in politics, social issues and trades unions to make a commitment and take responsibility", says Etxerat association's Naike Diez.

Each time he goes to visit her father at Santoña's El Dueso prison he has to travel 334 kilometres. We asked him about Etxerat, and he explained that around 500 people got together at national meetings and nowadays, although there are discussions, it is a unified association. Most of the members are getting on in age, which has certain consequences.

Diez has noticed a change when they meet with political parties and trade unions. “Until recently, they had seen it as a Basque Left satellite. but that's changing. We are stakeholders with our own route".

In the latest round of talks, they got together with all the political parties and trades unions except for PP, UPN, PSN and UGT Nafarroa. "We saw a real wish to get this finished. We don't know what they'll actually do, but that's what they told us. Let's see if it's true".

Naike Diez, member of Etxerat. (Dani Blanco)

Etxerat has travelled to Brussels to explain ill prisoners' situation to MEPs. There are 22 gravely ill prisoners, and they reported that France and Spain are breaking their own laws.

Former prisoners' lock-up in Usurbil

Sare's demonstration have been warmed up during a month. Starting on December 10th, hundreds of former prisoners took turns in the Kalera Kalera lock-in at Usurbil.

From left to right: Antton Lopez, Alberto Matxain and Oihana Garmendia. (Dani Blanco)

"There was a good atmosphere, something like a prison-yard atmosphere", Oihana Garmendia, from Santurtzi, says. They freed her in December, 2015, after 6 years in prison. "It gives you strength to see some many former prisoners, between the ages of 30 and 40, working in favour of the people still inside".

Some people spent a night on the bunk beds in the marquee set up in Usurbil square, others spent five nights there, others two weeks, and some people spent a whole month there. The cold and many people falling ill did not dissuade them.

1000 former prisoners and former refugees gathered at Usurbil during the last day of Kalera Kalera.

Antton Lopez from Elorrio spent 26 years in prison, and was freed in 2013 after the Strasbourg Human Rights Court outlawed the Parot Doctrine. He, took, took part in Kalera Kalera enthusiastically. Lopez set two objectives: firstly, sparking a reaction amongst Basque Left supporters and getting people taking an active part. Conferences, demonstrations, human chains and other events have been held in different towns to increase awareness of the prisoners' situation. Lopez believes that the objective has been achieved. As part of that, members of Ernai and Aitzina chained themselves outside the Madrid Prison Department and the Paris Palace of Justice. "The conclusion I have drawn is that people do take part if you offer them the opportunity".

The second objective is to connect the issue of the prisoners with society. They are very pleased about the number of organizations who took part in Usurbil and the relationships which grew up between them. However, Lopez believes that the main work to be done concerns social issues. However, Kalera Kalera is not a single stakeholder, and the political party Sortu is going to take charge of this area, as reflected in the Zohardia report.

Is the Basque Political Prisoners' Colletive ready for new options?

In addition to the above, former prisoners want to use the Kalera Kalera dynamic to express their support for prisoners who have started a process of debate. "With the objective of emptying the prisons", the direction of Basque Political Prisoners' Colletive (EPPK in Basque) has presented the draft of the ideas which are going to be debated from prison to prison, opening up the possibility of each prisoner making use of new legal possibilities.

Basque prisoner's dispersion map.

"Each prisoner will decide whether to make use of those legal opportunities or not: redemptions, specific prisons, changes in category, permits, getting closer to the Basque Country, conditional liberty, and so on. As those options have been collectively accepted, they will have the support of the whole group. That has to be the spirit of the new way of working", according to the document.

"Uniting, bringing home, bringing back into society" are the main ideas they underline. "EPPK is going to accept all the steps taken in that direction, with peers' acceptance and support". The collective will respect the limits which it set itself and which it told Argia about in an interview in 2015: regret and denunciation.

The conversations will take some months. If the report were not accepted, another would be drawn up based on the contributions received; if it were accepted, prisoners' requests could be made very quickly, making use of legal channels recently approved by the Spanish High Court, and taking advantage of legal contradictions.

"We're keen to start the debate"

“We have come from a political deadlock and we have a lot to do and say. Over the last three years we have not been able to give a collective response to the political situation". Iurdan Martitegi from Durango believes that analysis of the situation, new proposals and discussion processes are indispensable for the political stakeholders.

Iurdan Martitegi, at the Spanish National Court.

He answered ARGIA's questions from prison, making clear that he was not speaking on anybody's behalf other than his own. Martitegi had been arrested on April 19th, 2009 for being the head of ETA in northern Catalonia, and was accused of taking part in several terrorist attacks. They were to have had a meeting with Jon Anza on the day of the arrest. Anza was disappeared on that day. Martitegi is in prison at Moulins-Yzeure, 770 kilometres from his home town. "The new discussions have given us hope in the middle of the desert", he says.

– What do you hope for from the two states?

– Nowadays I don't expect anything good from the Spanish and French states, they'll only increase the obstacles to our discussions. The states aren't interested in having a Collective which is alive, has a network and makes proposals, and an example of that is how they arrested and imprisoned our social intermediaries and lawyers three years ago. As they don't have any proposals, they'll carry on doing things like that.

– What do you think will happen over the next few years, in the short term?

– I'd prefer the responsibility for the consequences of the armed struggle to be transferred from the Basque Left to the whole of the Basque Country. I'd like to see some political parties capable of dealing with what the current reality calls for, going beyond their own party interests, getting involved with the consequences which most people demand from the struggle, standing up to the state's deadlock from a national point of view. I'd rather there were agreements, alliances and unity about the consequences of the struggle, a tool for beginning an independence process. Breaking away from the states and achieving a national agreement, finding out how to start a unilateral process.

Amnesty as an objective?

On the evening of January 14th, after the mass demonstration called by Sare, another demonstration set off from the old part of Bilbao for the fourth consecutive year, called by the Pro-Amnesty and Anti-Repression Movement. Hundreds of people came together under the Complete Amnesty slogan. In the speech read at the end of the demonstration there was praise for the old struggle for amnesty in the Basque Country, emphasising the political nature of the repression.

Hundreds asked for 'Total Amnesty' in Bilbao. (Photo: AAM)

"In recent years, however, the political nature of the January demonstration has been lost and only the humanitarian point of view is taken into account, leaving fugitives and deportees out". They have stated that the movement is in favour of improving prisoners' individual situations "as long as that is not used to deflect attention from the ultimate objective of achieving an integral solution: the ultimate objective is amnesty".

They believe that if the issue of political repression “is only looked at from the perspective of human rights, in an aseptic way, ignoring the political context, in the near future most people in our country fill call for bringing prisoners closer and for the release of ill prisoners, but they will also call for prisoners to pay for the crimes they have committed, although under a more flexible and human prison regime”.

With regard to EPPK's recent report (where they accused some people without mentioning their names of "taking advantage of some prisoners' situations"), former ETA member Jon Iurrebaso published an opinion piece in several media denouncing the differences arising from prisoners taking individual decisions and criticising the Basque Left's official line.

Antton Lopez, who was involved in Kalera Kalera, believes that they have basically different political projects. "If it were just the dispute about the prisoners, we'd sort it out after three meetings. But it's more than that, it's politics".

"The ATA issue was very sad for us", says Iurdan Martitegi from prison. "To the extent to which I believe that profound differences influence changes in political strategies, I'd like us to have the same ability to manage different branches that feminism has, that rather than our divisive, subtracting tendencies; I'd like us to become a strong, multiplying force".

Gender violence in political struggle

"Here we are the women who started our struggle for an independent Basque Country and a fairer society".

That is how the Hemen gaude ('Here We Are') manifesto begins, part of the Kalera kalera initiative in which, in December, 60 former prisoner women from five generations took part. "Completing a shared feminist discourse and preparing a perspective for moving forward is a task which we have yet to address", says Olatz Dañobeitia, who have been working hard on this issue. This woman from Lekeitio spent six years in prison.

"In the context of a political struggle, we militants have taken some social decisions and been subjected to repression as a result. The objective is for those of us women who have been in that situation is to tell people about our experiences in connection with the two states and our movement.

Around 60 women read publicly the feminist manifesto 'Here we are'. (Kalera Kalera)

They touch many issues in the manifesto: the model of militancy which takes men and hardness as its central axis; women under police control; the need for and lack of caring; feminine protection; motherhood; media treatment; personal priorities and pain, amongst other things. The manifesto finishes by demanding the freedom of the 52 women who are political prisoners at present.

Dañobeitia says she is proud of the good reactions there have been to the initiative: "Even so, we have to take a step, an important one for us, but carrying on walking in that direction is the responsibility of many stakeholders, of the whole of Basque society".

Olatz Dañobeitia is one of the ex-prisoners working for a feminist narration of the Basque armed conflict.
The keys for looking ahead?

Asked about the keys which may be important for looking ahead, Alberto Matxain from Iruñea has no doubts. He spent six years and two months in prison. "The collective's discussion is going to be the central issue". Antton Lopez believes that the key is that the collective has stated that it is going to move from "the resistance phase to the construction phase".

Sare's Joseba Azkarraga believes that 2017 is going to be a decisive year with regard to Basque prisoners' rights. For one thing because he thinks that ETA is going to disarm –"with or without the two states' collaboration"–, and, for another, because if the EPPK's report is accepted then the two states' message will unravel. "It's a decisive year. If we don't manage to unblock the prisoners' issue this year, we run the risk of it getting blocked again and rotting on the branch. A rotting peace process is a process which includes the risk of a return to violence".

In the human rights area, they have written a report for political parties to be able to reach an agreement of minimums, including opinions from legal experts of many different points of view. Sare is going to look for agreements and defend them in many different institutions.

Sare's spokeperson Joseba Azkarraga thinks 2017 will be an important year. (Dani Blanco)

When asked about the current situation, Iurdan Martitegi says: "I think there's a lack of information in the southern Basque Country about the political and social situation in the northern Basque Country. Most people's and stakeholders' commitment shows agreement with regard to their interpretation of how to solve the conflict and reflects each group's area. In the Basque Political Prisoners Colletive and Basque Political Refugess Collective line “I see the need for a new type of organisation which would provide political discourse for external and internal steps and spread the infantry's long-term work to every town, relighting and activating public spaces".

"I think there's also a clear shortcoming in people's attitude to disobedience. Taking a step without waiting for anybody, an active militancy which is ready to denounce any type of injustice". He mentioned groups's tools in solidarity with the prisoners from the 1990's, Ernai and Aitzina Basque youth movements' "praiseworthy direct initiatives" and the solidarity action of the two Basques arrested in Greece trying to bring refugees to the Basque Country as examples. "There are tools for the struggle available, there are places to make a difference and things to denounce, and there is strength to put that into practice. What are we waiting for?”, he asks.

Oihana Garmendia told us about the contact she has had with people from the new Kalera Kalera initiative. "There are some urgent issues: ill prisoners, dispersion, the situation of elderly prisoners… All of the stakeholders who have come together agree about the need to solve those matters as soon as possible. We have suggested that the situation of exception in force in the Spanish state needs to be repealed. Law 7/2003 makes it impossible to take steps forward as you would in a usual situation, for example with regard to prisoners' recognised rights. It's the politics of vengeance, wartime politics. That has to end".

The stakeholders also demand that the Basque Government and the Government of Navarre should have institutional power to manage prisons.

Hundreds of Basque political prisoners' and refugees' family members marched opening the demonstration in Bilbao. (Dani Blanco)

Antton Lopez believes that for the Basque Left the key is to defining the current political moment. "We have to effect a pro-independence process. And how is that subject of determination formed? By forming a nation. We are in a democratic process. That means that we have to take into account people who do not share our ideology, we have to form a people in order to stand up to the state. In that sense, parts are no good: we need a whole. It's very important to take that idea on board". He thinks that the Basque Left also has to learn to live with contradictions. "If we form a rigid Basque Left, it'll be a mistake".

Oihana Garmendia, too, see the process of forming a nation as a key. "The moment has come for the citizens to take on that responsibility and testimony. Not the political parties, not negotiations between governments… No, we ourselves are the key". In that sense, she is very clear that bilateral negotiations are of no value.

“The Basque conflict stemmed from oppression, which is crossed with other types of oppression, for instance the struggle which we women have with the patriarchy. Firstly, we have to write the feminist story of the Basque conflict, and then put forward a proposal for its feminist solution. We haven't done either of those two things", says Olatz Dañobeitia. With an eye to the future, she says there is a lot of work to do. This women's group is not a stakeholder, it was a specific initiative within Kalera Kalera. However, they say that they will carry on with their work in another way.

Naike Diez from Etxerat believes that Social Forum's work will be important in the short-term. They have been called to take part in an initiative each in Donostia and in Hendaia. "They are going to examine what can be done with regard to the prisoners and fugitives". Whatever decisions EPPK takes, Diez thinks that the Basque Government's reaction to measures taken by the Spanish courts will be key.

In addition to that, the first case against dispersion reached the Strasbourg Human Rights Court on January 9th. Lawyer Amaia Izko tells us that it is the first of hundreds of cases.

Wanting to close a cycle

"As a people, we are taking that humble, dignified pride with us in firmly opposing the entire monstrosity with the prisons symbolise", Martitegi says from prison. "That immaterial heritage is indestructible, all people in struggle carry it within them, and so does the Basque Country, of course, and it deserves self-recognition, and attention being paid to that, analysing and congratulating this people of ours".

Family members and friends of the prisoners in Daroca (Zaragoza, Spain) have to travel more than 600 kilometers. (Lander Arbelaitz)

On the last day of the year, the two cars taking people to visit prisoners Aitor Olaizola and Kemen Lertxundi at Zaragoza's Daroca prison arrived in the prison's cold car park at the same time. Two people from Ondarroa and two people from Donostia spent the hour before the visit together, and, afterwards, almost a further hour saying goodbye. With the giant concrete building in front of them, knowing they were leaving their friends inside it once more, they ended up quoting Angela Davis' demand for the abolition of prisons, made a few months earlier. "So many generations have spent their time worried about prison issues, I'm surprised we haven't caught onto the idea of abolishing prisons before now", one of them says.

One of them is working on the internationally organized initiative Tattoo Circus meeting, which will be held in various states. In Donostia will be on the weekend of March 31st.

This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.

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