Diarmuid Breatnach


The French Government deny rumours of a relaxation in their policy of dispersal. The Spanish Government confirms it is business as before for Basque political prisoners.

On 3rd September French diplomatic sources refuted interpretations in some media that it had changed its position with regard to Basque political prisoners. The media interpretations had been built upon a statement by the Abertzale (Basque Patriotic) Left party Sortu, that it had met on July 8th with the French Minister of Justice. The diplomatic sources downplayed the significance of the meeting and denied bringing Basque political prisoners closer to the Basque Country. Etxerat, the organisation for relatives and friends of the prisoners, confirmed that there had been no move to moderate the dispersal.

The day previous to the release of information from French diplomatic sources, on Wednesday, French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had met with her Spanish counterpart, Rafael Catala. The following day, Taubira said her Government’s approach is to analyse requests for transfer based on the length of the sentence and relocation near their family. Meanwhile, the Spanish Minister of Justice and the Interior reiterated his Government’s position that any individual prisoners’ transfer to a jail in the Basque Country required the prisoners to renounce their organisation and to accept responsibility for the damage caused by their action.

The French approach contrasts with the requirements of the Spanish Government, although Catalá reiterated yesterday that both states were acting in a “coordinated” manner and that the French Government “has not moved its policy by one iota .”

According to Etxerat on Thursday, of the nearly 100 Basque political prisoners in French prisons, only two are in Mont de Marsans prison (152 kilometers from the Basque city of Donosti), while six prisoners are in Lannemezen (231 kilometers). The rest are serving out their sentences at a greater distance from home, the vast majority at more than 600 kilometers. Although the support organisation viewed the French Minister’s statement positively, it was also at pains to disabuse people of any belief in a change in the French dispersal of prisoners and stated that any prisoners brought nearer were merely as a result of movement to which the relatives and friends have become accustomed, “bringing them close” before “bringing them far away again.”

Map of the dispersal of Basque political prisoners across both states and Etxerat picket
Map of the dispersal of Basque political prisoners across both states and Etxerat flag in a poster calling for a protest and solidarity demonstration some years ago

The organisation of relatives and friends of Basque political prisoners stated that neither they nor any prisoners’ relatives participated in any meeting with the French Ministry of Justice – any meeting was with several members of Sortu only.

Spokespersons for the party of the Patriotic Left, Sortu, indicated that at their July meeting the French Ministry had been represented by Alain Christnach, Taubira’s Chief of Staff. Meanwhile the French, through diplomatic sources, asked observers not to “over-interpret” this meeting and indicated that participation in the meeting does not mean accepting Sortu’s proposals.

Another issue discussed by the Spanish and French Ministers was the possible transfer of prisoners under the law of mutual recognition of penal sentences in the EU, in force since January. This legislation provides the possibility for prisoners serving sentences in any EU Member state to be transferred to a Spanish prison; however, most Basque prisoners are unlikely to avail of this provision due to harder treatment in the Spanish prison system and the fact that dispersal throughout the state continues.

In a different aspect of the same legislation, the MEP of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Izaskun Bilbao, asked the European Commission whether it will take Spain before the European Court of Justice for failure to take account of sentences served in French prisons by Basque political prisoners. This is because of the fact that the Spanish state often waits until a prisoner has served his sentence in France before extraditing him on a Spanish charge to face a further sentence in Spanish prisons.

Policy of dispersal of political prisoners — an abuse of human rights

There are many issues raised with regard to Basque political prisoners but the most universal one is the simple fact of dispersal. Relatives and friends face journeys of hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to visit their loved ones and the same distance back again. Many of these journeys are impossible without overnight stays. The expense drains financial resources while the long journeys themselves drain energy and, for elderly or unwell relatives, are an impossibility. An average of one serious accident a month occurs on these journeys for Basque political prisoners’ visitors and twelve have died in crashes over the years. Nor is it unknown for the relatives to be harassed by police on their journey or attacked by Spanish civilian fascists. As Etxerat has stated in its monthly reports and in a number of other statements: “The sentence was supposed to be on the prisoner but in actual fact was served on us as well, although we have been accused of nothing.”

It is a well-established principle of human rights that prisoners should, as far as possible, serve their sentences in a prison close to their families and relatives. This is in recognition of the rights of families as well as the desirability of easing the reintegration of prisoners as much as possible into society. The principle is covered in a number of United Nations policy paragraphs and also within the EU’s model rules for prisoners adopted in 2006 (

Since both the French and Spanish states’ policy of dispersal appears to be in clear violation of the prisoners’ and relatives’ human rights and indeed of the EU’s own model rules for prisoners, some observers find it somewhat perplexing that the relatives’ organisation does not take a case against the states to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Granted, Strasbourg’s controversial decision on the Spanish State’s banning of the Herri Batasuna political party did not go in the Basques’ favour and the Court, albeit instructing the Spanish state to pay compensation to Basques for not investigating their claims of torture, continues to show a reluctance to find the Spanish State  guilty of actual torture. But the dispersal of prisoners is an observable and undeniable fact and, furthermore, one which has been confirmed in public statements by Government ministers of both states.


End item

(Main source on the various statements: Deia, 4th September 2015)

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