The Case of Herri Batasuna:
Spain's Political Show Trial
Imagine the following: A Western nation whose neighbours have praised it for its smooth transition to democracy attempts to ban a legal and established political party by arresting all of the members of its national committee, and creating a political show trial in which the only offence those members are charged with is the distribution of a video. Too surreal? Not really. It has just happened in the Kingdom of Spain, where, as the following article by Gorka Baserretxea shows, the legacy of fascist rule under Franco remains a part of the current political system. The Spanish state is a complex entity, most of which is not truly 'Spanish,' but rather comprised of at least five different nationalities, the oldest and most vocal among them being the Basques. This is their story.
1 December 1997: The Spanish Supreme Court declares that all 23 members of the National Board of the Basque left nationalist party Herri Batasuna (People's Unity), are guilty of 'collaboration with an armed terrorist group,' on the basis of their distribution of a videotape. The videotape contained members of the armed group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna Ð Basque Homeland and Freedom) discussing a peace proposal to end the conflict between the Basque Country (Euskadi) and the Spanish authorities. They are sentenced to seven years in prison...
Some Background: Who are the Basques?
The Basques (Euskaldunak) are the one of the indigenous peoples of Europe, believed to have been in their part of the world for the past 25,000 years. The Basque Country is located in a 20,644 kilometre area between Spain and France; it is larger than Belgium. Basques speak a language (Euskara) which is linguistically unrelated to any other in the world, and they have survived attacks throughout history by the Romans, as well as by Spanish feudal rulers. During the Franco years, the Basques were attacked directly as well as indirectly. The Basque language was banned and driven underground, Basque names forcibly Hispanicised, 11,000 Basques sent to concentration camps, and 20,000 children sent out of the country into exile.
The idea of self-determination, of an independent and democratic Basque nation, was referred to by the first installed Francoist mayor of Bilbo in 1937 (the Basque Country's largest city) as 'that horrible, sinister, and atrocious nightmare,' a result of 'socialism' and 'imbecility' perpetuated by 'twisted upstarts.' It is in that view of the Basque people and their struggle to maintain their identity under the occupation of a Spanish state, that the roots of the current conflict may be found.
The political movement for a Basque nation began at the turn of the century with the creation of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in 1895. This party was the party of both left and right Basque nationalists until 1931, when the right of the party decided to compromise with the Spanish Republican government by making pacts with the Spanish state in an attempt to prevent the radicalisation of the nationalist cause by the socialist left. The move by the PNV backfired, as their compromise associated them with the Republican cause, and therefore made them the equal targets, along with all Basques, of the fascist Franco regime. Many know of the famous painting by Pablo Picasso, 'Guernica,' which depicts the horrible massacre of civilians carried out by Franco's forces. What people may not know is that this city, which the Basques call Gernika, is to the Basques what Jerusalem is to the Jews, or Mecca to the Muslims, and that Franco's attack was targeted directly at the spirit of the Basque freedom movement. Imagine if either Jerusalem or Mecca were to be attacked by an outside oppressor.
The cause of a free and independent Euskadi was to be frustrated again after the Second World War, when Basque resistance fighters, and the Basque government in exile (who were supported by the Allies) were abandoned by the Allied forces who had no more use for them, and who decided to support Franco on the basis of 'realpolitik.' (Franco was the only Fascist leader of an Axis power to be allowed to continue his regime by the West.)
It was not until the late 1950s that the left of the Basque nationalist movement began to regroup, and decided to confront fascist Spain directly. The creation of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA - Basque Homeland and Freedom) in 1959 was initially much more than the armed resistance organisation it is known as today. In the early years, ETA comprised a vast network of activists and individuals that helped to create schools for the Basque language, cultural programs to revive Basque culture, and Basque magazines and music. At that time, it was ETA that motivated the other areas of the Basque independence movement which today have nothing to do with the armed conflict. Further, ETA's analysis of the nationalist question was unique among nationalist movements in that it stood firmly on the position that not only ethnic Basques, but all who live in the Basque Country, are part of the Basque Country. The fact that these early actions were done against the will of a military junta which had consistently attempted to erase the Basque identity altogether, meant that sooner or later, ETA, as the only force defending the interests of the Basque people against Spanish oppression, would have to confront Madrid.
ETA embarked on a campaign of armed actions against the Spanish state during the '60s and '70s, which attracted international attention and the support of many notables including Jean-Paul Sartre. In December of 1973 ETA assassinated Franco's handpicked successor, Admiral Blanco, and in so doing, essentially sealed the fate of the Francoist regime. The following year, sensing that political change was now inevitable, the various political and cultural movements that were under the umbrella of ETA decided to become independent entities, leaving ETA in existence as the armed force of Basque independence.
After Franco: The Modern Basque Left
After the death of Franco in 1975, changes began to occur within the Spanish state that required it to attempt to consolidate its power as a modern state. In 1979 a new constitution was drafted by the heirs of Franco's legacy and put to a vote. This constitution, which declared the 'indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,' was overwhelmingly rejected by the Basque Country by a vote of 66% (even the conservative and usually pro-Madrid PNV had to abstain), yet the will of the Basque people was ignored.
The Spanish government, in an attempt to pacify the nationalist sentiment, convinced the PNV and a second pro-Madrid Basque party, the EE, to support the Statute of Moncloa, which granted nominal autonomy to the three smaller southern Basque provinces of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba, but did not include the largest province, Nafarroa, and did not allow for any control over political or economic decision-making independent of Madrid. It was in essence a method to get the right wing Basque business community on the side of the Spanish state, without ceding any real democracy or political power. It did not acknowledge the right, even eventually, to a unified Basque nation.
In 1982, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) was elected to power, after a series of compromises and pacts with Spain's business community, who saw the need to use the PSOE in order to improve Spain's reputation among its neighbours. Felipe Gonzalez became Prime Minister, but the PSOE had long since changed its attitude of 'democratic rupture,' which supported the concept of self-determination for Euskadi while it was opposing Franco. Now safely in power, Gonzalez would continue the same kind of toying with the Basque right as his predecessors, and this would evolve into something far more sinister in the next few years; something that should never be associated with the word 'socialist.' At the same time that year, the coalition of groups and individuals that had voted against the Spanish constitution in 1978 held together and formed a new political party. In this coalition is found the origin of Herri Batasuna (HB), not as operatives of ETA, but as a result of the democratic electoral campaign to defeat the Spanish domination of Euskadi.
Gonzalez' Dirty War
It is with Felipe Gonzalez that the roots of the political persecution of Herri Batasuna are to be found. Reports in the international media surfaced in 1994 that Gonzalez had been directly involved in the establishment of a secret paramilitary force known as the GAL, whose job it was to harass, kidnap, torture, and murder Basque nationalist activists. 28 people were killed by the GAL in their 'dirty war' against the Basque Country from 1983-1987, and it was discovered that high ranking members of the Army and the Gonzalez government were involved in these actions, some of which were as crude as the indiscriminate murder of civilians in a pub.
Gonzalez' obsession with the destruction of the Basque freedom movement continued after the Dirty War was ended. Amnesty International verifies the widespread use of torture in the Spanish state against Basque activists, including teenagers. Over 200 cases of torture have been documented against Basque political activists, and 550 political prisoners are held in jails throughout Spain, kept away from family and friends.
In May of 1996, in part due to the GAL scandal, Gonzalez and his corrupt PSOE were thrown out of office, only to be replaced by the post-fascist Popular Party (PP) of Jose Maria Aznar. But not before his government got one last strike at Herri Batasuna, which by now had become the second largest political party in Euskadi, and the only party which is calling for a free, democratic socialist Euskadi, fully independent of both Spain and France.
The 'crime' of a videotape
We finally come to the events of the past year, which involve the distribution of a videotape that contains members of ETA explaining their conditions for ending the conflict between the Basque Country and the Spanish State, as well as their willingness to negotiate an end to that conflict. Herri Batasuna attempted to distribute the video so that the public could hear for themselves what ETA was proposing in order to end the violence and resolve the matters at hand.
On 21 February 1996, the response of the Gonzalez government, in one of its last actions, was to have the video declared illegal, and to arrest Herri Batasuna leader Jon Idigoras for distributing the video, under the charge of 'collaborating with an armed band.' In addition, the so-called 'socialist' Gonzalez government began seeking ways to have Herri Batasuna declared illegal.
Gonzalez' successors would not disappoint him; in January 1997, the Spanish Supreme Court brought their charges against the National Board of Herri Batasuna (7 of whom are members of the Basque Parliament), on the aforementioned charge of 'collaboration with an armed group.' The trial finally began in October, with the burden of proof placed on the defendants, a flagrant violation of international law (which upholds the presumption of innocence until the state has proven guilt.)
All Basque parties, across the spectrum from left to right, including those who condemn Herri Batasuna as the political wing of ETA, have raised their voices in opposition to this trial, which they understand is another historical attack on Basque political expression. International observers and human rights organisations have agreed that the trial of Herri Batasuna had no basis in evidence, and was in fact no more than a political trial carried out by the Spanish state to silence of all things, a peace proposal. (Spain has rejected all offers from the Catholic Church as well as Nobel Prize-winning laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel to mediate peace talks between ETA and Spain). The Spanish prosecutor never did prove any actual connection between ETA and HB; instead he sought to convict the 23 defendants on the basis of their political beliefs, stating in the trial that 'HB never denounced ETA' and made propaganda for them by showing the videotape. On 1 December, all 23 were convicted; four days later, they were arrested and imprisoned for the videotape. They are planning to appeal the verdict.
On 28 December in Bilbo, thousands of people marched silently through the streets. Members of Herri Batasuna, the heirs of the long, proud struggle for a free Basque homeland, a land which they have inhabited long before the other tribes of Europe arrived, carried a banner: 'Konponbide demokratikoa orain, bakea behar dugu.' A democratic solution now, because we need peace. Perhaps the so-called 'democratic' Spanish government would like to arrest them for carrying a banner this time.