The Basque Country is one of the few places in the world where popular opposition successfully prevented the completion of a nuclear power plant; the opposition consisted of both popular mobilisations and armed action. But is the Spanish state now about to reimpose a nuclear program on the Basques?
In the 1960s, the Spanish state began a program of nuclear plant construction in the territory under its dominion. This was an era of great enthusiasm among states and industrialists for nuclear power and generally there was little popular opposition – most of the nuclear opposition at the time being focused on use of nuclear (and earlier, atomic) weapons and nuclear-powered military vessels.
Broad popular opposition to nuclear power itself began to build in particular after the accident at the nuclear reactor at Three-Mile Island (Pennsylvania, USA, 1979) and a catalogue of smaller nuclear reactor accidents (such as those at Sellafield, Wales, for example).
The lobby in favour of nuclear power tends to emphasize the ‘cleaness’ of the fuel (i.e. as opposed to ‘acid rain’ carbon dioxide and other pollution from coal-burning and oil-burning stations, and oil tanker disasters), relative ‘cheapness’ to produce (as opposed to oil, gas and coal) and possibly inexhaustible power (as opposed to fossil fuels). The lobby against nuclear power quotes environmental damage from accidents with potentially greater consequences and points out that the ‘cheapness’ is created by ignoring the costs of safe disposal of nuclear waste material which, if taken into account, would make it much more expensive.
Of course there are powerful interests in favour of nuclear power programs, including military, industrial energy production and construction industry. Employment opportunities in work-poor areas often build local support for construction of such plants also but in some areas it is precisely the local community that opposes the construction and that was the case in the southern Basque Country (the four provinces in Spanish-controlled territory).
Nuclear reactors tend to be built away from especially large population centres; if one accepts the necessity of such plants this policy makes sense but exposes people in areas far from the national decision-making centres to the pro-nuclear policy and its consequences, actual and potential. The later stages of the Spanish nuclear program included building three reactors in the Basque Country and one had already been built in the first phase at Garoňa, in the nearby Spanish province of Burgos.
LEMOIZ: A HISTORY OF STRUGGLE AGAINST NUCLEAR REACTORS IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY
The first site of the Basque-location phase of construction was at the small harbour of Lemoiz (Lemoniz in Spanish), situated in a picturesque part of Bizkaia (Biscay) province and attracted opposition from a coalition of interests: militant Basque left-nationalists, anti-nuclear and environmental campaigners.
Popular demonstrations began in the 1970s while the site was under construction with people traveling to the site to protest, also holding protests elsewhere and there were even some incidents of sabotage inside the facility, which was guarded by a Guardia Civil (Spanish Francoist paramilitary police force) post. This took place during the life of the Franco regime (he died in 1975) and also after his death during the repression of the “Transición” process which was not completed until 1982. Festivals and marches were also organised elsewhere in the Basque Country against the project.
The first armed attack by ETA was carried out 18 December 1977 with an attack on the Guardia Civil post at the site, during which David Álverez Peña,one of the ETA group’s members was injured, causing his death a month later. ETA later succeeded in planting a bomb in the reactor of the station which exploded on 17 March 1978, causing the death of two employees (Andrés Guerra and Alberto Negro), and wounding another two. Substantial damage was caused to the structure in the explosion, delaying construction.
On an International Day of Action Against Nuclear Power, 3rd June 1979, a police bullet resulted in the death of an anti-nuclear activist during a demonstration in Tudela, a town in the Basque province of Nafarroa; her name was Gladys del Estal and she was from Donostia/ San Sebastian in Gipuzkoa province. Demonstrations against the facility were now a weekly event.
ETA struck again on 13 June of that year with another bomb placed inside the site, on this occasion in the turbine area which, when it detonated, caused the death of another employee, Ángel Baños.
The deaths of employees in explosions might not have been intentional but on 29th January 1981 ETA kidnapped the chief engineer of the power station, José María Ryan, from Bilbao. The armed organisation issued an ultimatum to demolish the facility or to face the death of their hostage. Despite a demonstration organised against this threat, ETA killed engineer when the company did not back down.
The company replaced Ryan with Ángel Pascual as chief project engineer and ETA assassinated him on the 5th May 1982. Work at the site ground to a halt and Iberduero, the company developing the site temporarily halted work, calling on the Basque Government to commit itself to supporting the project.
The Government of the Autonomous Basque regionin which the site was located was in the hands of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) which, although completely opposed to ETA and by no means socialist, feared to go publicly against popular opinion opposed to the nuclear project. In 1983 the company officially stopped work, at which time both reactors were almost ready to go into production.
The deadlock was broken by the PSOE (Spanish unionist social-democratic party) winning the general election in 1984 on an anti-nuclear power policy and their government declared a moratorium on the building of all nuclear reactors throughout the state.
SPANISH STATE RETURNING TO A NUCLEAR -BUILDING PROGRAM?
The Spanish state currently has seven nuclear reactors generating a fifth of its electricity and its first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1968.
After the horrificnuclear reactor disaster of Chernobyl (USSR 1986), people probably assumed that no further nuclear reactors would ever be built in the Spanish state. But the PSOE, the main establishment political party that formerly forced the nuclear moratorium showssigns of beginning to waver on the issue and even the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukishima (Japan 2011) does not appear to have deterred them. The PP, the right-wing Spanish unionist party, has always been in favour of nuclear reactors so that now a ruling class consensus favourable to more reactors seems to be forming (or formed).
Last month, according to press reports in the Basque Country, José Ramón Torralbo, president of Nuclenor, the operator of the Garoña plant, stated that a “two-year-long” “comprehensive” evaluation of the nuclear power plant found no reason that the reactor could not be restarted “with some modifications”, although consideration of the request to reopen the plant is not complete and asked that deliberations of the CSN (Nuclear Safety Council) “should not be interfered with”.
Around the same time it was reported that the reopening of the Lemoiz plant was being considered also.
The decision on reopening is not to be based on questions of feasibility in the short term alone but on the decision of the Spanish Government with regard to its energy policy in general and with regard to nuclear power in particular. The President of Nuclenor indicated when speaking about the Garoña plant that a commitment to operate for 40 years only would rule out feasibility and that they would be looking for a 60-year minimum commitment and preferably for 90 years – presumably this would apply also to the Lemoiz plant.
Referring to environmental and other opposition to nuclear power generation, the president of the Forum of the Spanish Nuclear Industry, Antonio Cornadó, claimed it an “error” to “mix ideological with technological considerations”, stating that has “negative consequences” for the state energy model and for the economy, since the sector generates an important contribution to GDP and taxes.
Cornadó put this figure at €2,781 million contribution of the nuclear industry to Spanish GDP, the equivalent of 30% of the textile and footwear industry and said that “environmental taxes are becoming fashionable and seem set to increase”, stating that of every 100 euros of business, 25 go to the payment of taxes which contributes 781 million euros in taxes overall.
In addition Cornadó raised the fear of “irreversible risk …. of failing to meet climate change targets” and that “Spain is not ready to tackle the massive dismantling of all its nuclear power plants, which would be a very difficult and very expensive technological plan.”
A new uranium mining project is also commencing.
SPANISH STATE READY TO REOPEN LEMOIZ DESPITE ITS HISTORY?
With regard to Lemoiz and plans for any further nuclear reactors in the Basque Country, the factors to consider of course are much than financial viability, given the history of the plant. The Spanish state and indeed the ‘Autonomous’ Basque Government may feel that the current political situation favours a return to the nuclear program in the Basque Country or at least is less favourable to the forces that oppose it. This is despite the leading PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) official in Araba province declaring his opposition to it.
Some Basque trade union sources have claimed that Iberduero, the company owning the Lemoiz plant, have communicated to them that it has no plans to reopen Lemoiz but it is not clear whether these statements are merely trying to calm fears or possibly even enlist trade union support for employment at the plant.
The leadership of the Abertzale (pro-Basque independence) Left has chosen to abandon the armed struggle (ETA has been on “permanent ceasefire” since 2011) and, under the leadership of Arnaldo Otegi, to pursue a national independence program electorally in alliance with social democratic parties, which has seen a fall in street opposition activities also. The opposition to the Abertzale Left’s approach within the broad movement is growing but currently weak and, to an extent, divided. It is difficult to see how the movement’s current mainstream approach can hope to prevent a vigorous return to a Spanish State nuclear program throughout the territory it controls, including the southern four provinces of the Basque Country.
On the other hand, the Spanish ruling class finds itself politically divided and with neither of its main political parties able to form a government, with increasing talk of both of them, the PP and the PSOE, coming to an agreement for a national coalition government. That may bring the Spanish ruling class further problems in the future as the possibility of democratic alternative choices become more remote and are seen to be so. The discontent of broad sections of society within the Spanish state in recent years has been expressed in monster demonstrations, strikes, some movements and in elections, in which oppositional but mainly radical social-democratic parties across the state have made gains, sometimes huge ones. At the moment, the revolutionary opposition movement(s) in all parts of the state is weak and divided but this may change as the situation develops.
FIFTEEN YEARS PRISON THREATENED FOR BASQUE YOUTHS IN BAR ALTERCATION PROVOKED BY SPANISH POLICE – SIX ALREADY IN JAIL
Monday 15 November 2016
Six Basque youths are in jail without bail tonight and altogether twelve face fifteen years in prison, in a case arising out of an altercation in a bar in the southern Basque Country (i.e under Spanish occupation) involving two officers of the Guardia Civil (Spanish militarised police force) in Altsasu in the province of Nafarroa (Navarra).
Altsasu is known as a town with a particularly strong history of Basque resistance and a continuing sympathy among the population. The town also has, by no means accidentally, one of the strongest barracks of the Guardia Civil.
On the night of 15th October, the two male Guardia Civil officers, off duty and with their female partners, went into Taberna Koxka, a well-known bar and night spot frequented by the Abertzale (pro-Basque Independence) Left, where they behaved provocatively. Inevitably the policemen were challenged by some of the patrons of the bar and a scuffle broke out.
No injuries were sustained by the police although one of them claimed an injury to his ankle, a story that fell flat when it was revealed that he was already on sick leave at the time of the incident due to an injury to his ankle. In addition, the Guardia Civil report itself, though claiming the officers’ behaviour was non-provocative and peaceful, did not claim police injuries and the province’s “autonomous” police force (but very hostile to the Abertzale Left), the Policía Foral, also denied there had been any injuries.
The pro-Spanish media not only spread police lies but added to them, one surreal story alleging that the quietly relaxing police officers and their partners had been attacked by 50 Abertzale Left youth throwing martial arts punches and kicks. Tragically, such lies will find a ready audience in much of the Spanish state outside the Basque and Catalan countries.
At first the police classified the incident as a “hate crime” but the State Prosecution upgraded its classification to “terrorism”.
The eight youths were detained in police raids this morning and taken to the National Court in Madrid although, upon learning that they had been namedby the Guardia Civil in a list of 12 people involved, they had already voluntarily presented themselves to testify before a judge in Irunea who, however, could not be found. Despite that earlier voluntary attendance, a “risk of fleeing” was given as the primary reason for refusing them bail. Two others were released under stringent reporting to police conditions and two others, who also presented themselves voluntarily to be tried with the others, were told to return to court tomorrow.
The Prosecution has asked for the Basque youths to be tried under Article 573 of the new Penal Code, set aside for crimes of “terrorism”, the definition of which even the UN has declared to be “excessively imprecise and broad” and which “may criminalise behaviour which is not terrorist.” Conviction under Article 573 can carry a sentence of 15 years in jail.
Tonight in Altsasu, Basque youth took to the streets in peaceful but militant protest demonstration (see photo).
This incident is not without a context: in recent months the town has seen hundreds of Guardia Civil driving through the town at various times and a demonstration organised by Abertzale Left on 22ndOctober was penetrated by Guardia Civil vehicles (see photo). The strongest anti-repression organisation in the Basque Country, “Ospa Mugimendua”, has an active following in the town.
The Guardia Civil, although established in the Spanish state in 1844, is a militarised police force (type of carabinieri) associated in the minds of most Basques, Catalans and progressive Spaniards with the Spanish Civil War and with General Franco, whom the force enthusiastically supported. The force has a long history of violent repression, torture, murder and even rape. After the “reform” of the State with the death of Franco, the force was neither abolished nor reformed. The Guardia Civil is also much loved by the Spanish Right and the “Association of Victims of Terrorism” (sic), which regularly demands increased repression against Basques and Basque political prisoners, is mostly composed of relatives of the Guardia.
As the votes in the General Election in the Spanish state result in huge gains for the Podemos party and the most fragmented Parliament since before the Spanish Civil War, the Abertzale Left’s party in the elections also loses massively to the newcomer. This occurs in the context of wide discontent within the Abertzale Left, especially among the youth, with a potential split emerging around the issue of political prisoners.
The Spanish state includes within its borders most of the Basque Country and the Catalan Countries, which have their distinct cultures and languages. Also with a significantly different culture are Asturias and Galicia, both of them considering themselves Celtic rather than Latin-Hispanic and also having their own languages. There are in fact small movements seeking independence or greater autonomy in all other regions of the state, including in the political centre itself, Castille.
Four of the Basque Country’s seven provinces are currently inside the Spanish state and they were included in the Spanish state’s General Election on 20th December. A number of financial scandals affecting the ruling Spanish right-wing Partido Popular in recent years no doubt made their leaders reluctant to go to the polls but holding off longer might have resulted in even worse outcomes.
On the other hand, the PP’s main parliamentary opposition, the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Espaňol (PSOE) were also embroiled in some financial scandals during the same period, though not as many.
In the event, both main parties achieved disastrous results and neither can form a majority government. The new party of the social-democratic Left, Podemos (“We Can”), which did not even exist two years ago, has leapt into third place and a new party of the Right, Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), is in a poor fourth place. No two of the aforementioned parties can form a coalition government except in the case of a PP-PSOE coalition; however that would cause massive problems for each party and also dispel the political myth of a democratic choice between “Left and Right” in the Spanish state.
The Spanish state has long been the most unstable in the core European Union. Collusion between fascists, alleged social democrats and alleged communists internally, along with the support of the USA and the tolerance of its European partners has kept it afloat. Nevertheless, it represents the part of the EU most vulnerable to revolution, with immediate impact should that happen on the French and Portuguese states and further ripples throughout the EU. However the revolutionary and potentially revolutionary forces are weak, divided and riddled with opportunism. (see separate article focussing on the elections and the Spanish state in )
Despite the weaknesses in the Spanish state, the Basque Abertzale Left has made little headway against it and has been slipping electorally badly this year.
Election Results in the Basque Country
EH Bildu (“Basque Country Unite”), the social-democratic coalition party under the direction of the Basque Abertzale (Patriotic) Left, came out of the Spanish state-wide elections badly (as it did in the regional elections earlier this year in the Basque Country also, with the exception of in Nafarroa). With a drop of nearly two-thirds of its previous percentage of the vote, it lost five seats and now has only two in the Spanish Parliament (the Cortes). The christian-democrat PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), traditionally the dominant in the three southern provinces of Euskadi (i.e. excluding Nafarroa, the fourth), also took a drop in its percentage but a much smaller one and despite that, increased its numbers of seats from five to six. The Basque nationalist coalition in Nafarroa, Geroa Bai (“Yes to the Future”), lost its only seat.
The winner that swept up the ‘missing’ votes in the Basque Country was Podemos, a party that did not even exist until last year. Although gaining one seat less than the PNV in the “Euskadi” or CAV (three provinces region), Podemos actually won more votes and its share was 25.97%, against the PNV’s 24.75%. Shockingly, at 15.72%, EH Bildu has now been reduced to fourth place after the other two and the PSOE, with only the PP worse off but with the same amount of seats. Even in Gipuzkoa, the province most loyal to the Abertzale Left, their share fell to 20.89% and their coalition party EH Bildu lost two seats. In the same province Podemos topped the poll in votes and gained two seats.In the fourth province, Nafarroa, EH Bildu lost their only seat and took a 9.90% share against UPN-PP’s 28.93%, Podemos’s 22.9%, and PSOE’s 15.53%.
It seems clear that in the Basque Country, Podemos took votes both from the PSOE and from the Abertzale Left’s coalition party, EH Bildu and even some from the PNV. For the PSOE, a party in Government in the past and implicated in the GAL murders, also involved in a number of recent financial scandals across the state, to lose votes in the Basque Country to a radical-left coalition, would have come as no surprise to most people. It is a different matter altogether for EH Bildu, with a strongly patriotic Left following, never tainted with a financial scandal and never yet in Government, to lose votes to a newcomer like Podemos — and that needs some explanation.
The fact is that the AL leadership flirted with Podemos – even proposing a joint electoral platform — and thereby sent the message that voting for them would not be such a bad thing. But there were sufficient reasons for the AL to have done otherwise, even without the objective of safeguarding their own vote. It has been clear for some time that the leadership of Podemos is hostile to aspirations towards independence of nations within the State. Their leader recently criticised the decision of a Catalan pro-independence coalition to use the regional elections as a quasi-referendum on Catalunya’s independence. Also one of their ideologues, in the midst of an intervention in discussions within Colombia, likened ETA to Columbia’s fascist assassination squads (who murder trade unionists, human rights workers, socialists, even street children). In addition, Podemos has never come out against the repression in the Basque Country.
There were enough reasons for the AL leadership to draw a deep line between themselves and Podemos. But they did the opposite. This contrasts with the left-republican Catalan nationalists (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya-Catalunya Sí) who engaged in a public battle with Podemos’ leadership. Incidentally, they increased their share of the vote by 1.33% and their representation from three seats to nine.
Another vulnerability of the AL movement to a party like Podemos is precisely the road of conciliation with and concession to the Spanish state taken by the AL over the recent five years and longer. If that road is seen to be OK then, some might say, why not vote for a radical reformist left party and one which, crucially, has a large following throughout the State? Such thinking combines a perception that revolution is not possible, implicit in the approach of the AL leadership, with a view that a solution can only be found outside the Basque Country, which although contrary to most of AL’s propaganda, does seem in part to be the case, based on population statistics alone (see discussion on this further on).
This view was seemingly endorsed by the post-election statement of Barrena, spokesperson for the Abertzale Left’s party Sortu, who characterised the vote for Podemos as “the right to decide” and held out his hand for electoral coalitions with them in the future. The irony — that precisely Podemos does not support “the right to decide” of nations within the Spanish state – was apparently lost on Barrena.
Around September there were whispers of the intention to hold a review of their trajectory within the Abertzale Left. This seemed an acceptance that their chosen path had, if not failed completely, then certainly fallen far short of their own expectations. I wondered how they would contain severe criticisms within such a review, a much more difficult process now than some years ago, when confusion combined with illusions and the soothing words of long-standing leaders.
Further confirmation of this review has since come out: called ABIAN (“Launch”), it’s a debate being organised by Sortu (“Create”), a social-democratic party of the AL. A recent article in a Gipuzkoa news media stated clearly that the review was a response to criticisms of Sortu, “for the first time within the Abertzale Left” (i.e. not only outside of it). The article went on to list a number of organisations within the AL who had published criticisms, including “Boltxe” and the revived “Eusko Ekintza” (http://m.noticiasdegipuzkoa.com/2015/09/01/politica/las-duras-criticas-internas-empujan-a-sortu-a-revisar-su-estrategia-politica-y-organizativa). This contradicts Barrena’s public statement in September that those who criticise the current path of the Abertzale Left and their policy on the prisoners could no longer be counted as within the movement.
Given the electoral showing of the AL’s coalition party EH Bildu and other issues, such a review may be a way of “managing” the dissent but must also hold much danger for the leadership’s line, despite the party positions of the Otegi/ Permach/ Barrena leadership seeming reasonably secure at the moment (Otegi is due for release very soon).
Aside from all this and going back for a moment to Podemos, it does seem unlikely that this party has a long-term future but its development will be interesting to observe.
The political prisoners – a fracture point for the movement?
Whereas the Provisional Republican movement suffered a number of small splits and some defections as a result of its embarkation on the pacification road, it is a fact that they had something pretty significant to deliver – the release of political prisoners affiliated to them. Nearly every single one walked out of jail and their release was not only a result to “sell” the GFA to the movement but some of the prisoners themselves were used as advocates of the process. Although it is true the prisoners were only released “on licence” and a that number were sent back to jail without a trial again later, including new prisoners, that only happened to “dissidents”. For the moment that could be seen as helping the continuation of the Good Friday Agreement and hampering the mobilisation of Republican opposition to Sinn Féin and their chosen path.
The Abertzale Left has had no such gain and a split in the movement seems to be forming precisely around that issue.
There are 410 Basque political prisoners officially recognised by the Abertzale Left (there are some dissidents too outside that, apparently) and they, like their counterparts in the Irish Republican movement, have always been an important element in the struggle. Political prisoners are dispersed all over the Spanish state and the Basques are by far the most numerous component of these. Some are also serving very long sentences, as are their comrades who are jailed by the French and also dispersed throughout their state.
Around a dozen are suffering with very serious illnesses and the Spanish prison administration has admitted that it does not have appropriate treatment facilities for a number of them. However, mostly there they remain and a number have died in captivity in recent years. Twelve people have also died in automobile crashes on the long journeys to visit prisoners dispersed to hundreds or even a thousand kilometres from their homes and an average of one serious traffic accident a month for visitors was recorded last year.
Dispersal is a serious issue and for many years has been one of those upon which the movement concentrated, in particular Etxerat, the prisoners’ relatives’ and friends’ group, and the short-lived Herrira, a prisoners’ political campaigning group banned by the Spanish state and their leading organisers arrested. But that demand also stood alongside the demand for amnesty, the freeing of the prisoners as part of a political settlement.
More recently, however, the Abertzale Left’s leadership has been placing the emphasis on combating the dispersal and, according to some of their critics within the movement, abandoning the demand for amnesty. Perhaps the leadership felt that dispersal was an issue they had the capacity to change (though it is difficult to see how), whereas without an armed struggle to use as a bargaining chip, a prisoners’ amnesty may have seemed out of reach.
Meanwhile, last year, Sare (“Network”) was created by the AL leadership to pick up the threads dropped by Herrira but little has been heard or seen of it. The organisation’s spokesperson is Joseba Azkarraga, who has a somewhat radically fragmented track record. During the 1960s and 1970s a member of ETA (a fact missing from his Wikipedia entry in Spanish), he left them and joined the christian democrat PNV (Basque Nationalist Party). Azkarra was elected to be member of the Alava province local government for the PNV in 1979, a role he fulfilled later for Bizkaia province 1982-1986 and in the latter year also for the province of Guipuzkoa — representing the PNV throughout.
In 1987 he was part of a split from the PNV that led to the formation of Eusko Alkartasuna (EA), for which party he was elected a member of local government for Bizkaia in 1989. He was a member of EA’s National Executive 1987-1993 and 1999-March 2009, in between which periods he had withdrawn to concentrate on his business in the banking sector. From September 2001 to May 2009, he had the responsibility of Councillor for Justice, Employment and Social Security for the Basque Government. He has been quoted as saying that the more prosecutions of Abertzale Left activists the better – this from a man with a law degree in a State where prosecutions of Basques are more often than not ensured by “confessions” extracted by torture and where the standard of “evidence” required to convict is derisory.
Grumbling, particularly among younger activists about the emphasis on the institutions and the “abandonment of the street”, has been growing over the years. “Our movement’s spokespersons no longer speak of ‘freedom’ and ‘socialism’ but use more ambiguous words like ‘right to decide’ and social justice’ ” is a growing complaint.
Recently an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna (“Amnesty and Freedom”) was launched to campaign not only against dispersal but for amnesty for the prisoners too. The movement also goes by the name of Amnistiaren Aldeko Mugimendua (“Amnesty Movement”). In August of this year ATA/AAM held a small but significant demonstration in Bilbao associated with the annual alternative festival there which is strongly patronised by youth. At the end of November they held another in the same city, this time attended by an estimated 9,000.
In a Basque alternative radio station interview in August, some of ATA/AAM’s spokespersons complained of attempts to malign and isolate them but said they were overcoming these tactics and gaining support. The AL’s bilingual daily newspaper, GARA, did not publicise their demonstration in advance and their estimate of the attendance afterwards was about half of the real figure. The report also neglected to mention the messages of support from a number of political prisoners to the rally.
In December, the six alleged ETA prisoners awaiting trial in Paris on charges involving kidnapping, car and weapons theft and, for two of them, murder of a police officer, made a press statement denouncing the ATA/AAM group and claiming that they were using the prisoners as a Trojan horse in order to attack the whole recent direction of the Abertzale Left. They also accused them of trying to get Basque prisoners to leave the prisoners’ collective, the EEPK. No evidence was produced of this and the ATA/AAM were not asked to comment. GARA published the Paris statement under a headline containing the allegations without even putting them in quotation marks. It is rumoured that GARA lost many subscribers after that reporting.
It seems likely that this controversy will sharpen over the coming months with people, including prisoners, being obliged to take sides and it may be that it will be characterised by a similar bitterness to that which exists in the Republican movement in Ireland. But unlike the case of Ireland, the numbers of Basque prisoners in the jails remains very high. In addition, the Spanish state continues to jail people who are clearly political activists which adds to the political prisoner population. Without a change in that situation, the likelihood of very serious contention within the movement is high and on a much larger scale than has been the case in Ireland.
The recent dismal electoral showing of EH Bildu can only increase unhappiness within the movement and lead to judgements critical of the AL leadership and, inevitably, to one degree or another, of the path they openly set out upon a little over five years ago.
Background – the origins and trajectory of the Abertzale Left
Born during the Franco dictatorship, the Abertzale Left (Basque: Ezker Abertzalea; Spanish: Izquierda Abertzale) is a broad alliance of patriotic and Left elements with many aspects situated on the social, cultural-linguistic, trade union, media and of course political fronts. The movement was subject to heavy repression from the outset and after nearly a decade a section responded by taking up arms. The Basque Nationalists had done that against Franco in the Civil War – however, the Abertzale Left was doing so in a country occupied by the victors of that war.
Not many outside the Basque Country realise that ETA (“Basque Country and Freedom”) is more than “the armed wing of the Basque patriotic movement” — it is the origin of the Abertzale Left, operating solely politically and culturally (albeit clandestinely) for nine years, its activists spied upon, arrested, tortured, jailed. Eventually ETA took up the gun.
It was one of the main ideologues and organisers of ETA, José Miguel Beñaran Ordeñana (alias “Argala”, 1949 – murdered by GAL 21st December 1978) who pushed for the legal and semi-legal aspects of the work to form themselves into separate organisations from ETA while the parent organisation kept a relationship with them.
Although the old Basque Nationalist Party was legalised under the new form of the state after the death of Franco, repression of the Abertzale Left continued. Nevertheless the movement continued to grow, in particular its many non-military aspects, although they too were and are subjected to heavy repression.
Despite the adaptability of the movement and its significantly wide base (between 12%-20% on past electoral showings, despite banning and disqualifications of electoral platforms), it was difficult to see the validity of its strategy of combining armed struggle and popular political movement within the Basque Country, with regard to its long-term objectives of national independence and socialism.
The ruling classes of both the Spanish and French states have a long imperial history along with a strong traditional insistence on the unity of their “home” states, on which they have never shown a willingness to compromise. That is reflected not only within their main right-wing parties but also within the main social-democratic parties and the remains of the old Moscow-orientated Communist parties. In the Spanish state the situation is even more problematic, since the Basque Country and Catalunya are two of the most economically successful within the state, outperforming nearly every other region by a significant margin. Why would the Spanish ruling class wish to give those regions up?
The total Basque population is only around 3.5 million, some of which is within the borders of the French state. The Spanish state has a population of around 45 million outside the Basque Country and even with the subtraction of that of Catalunya (7.5 + million) and the Balearic Islands (just over one million), that still leaves a population of 36.5 million from which to draw soldiers and police.
According to Wikipedia, “the Spanish armed forces are a professional force with a strength in 2012 of 123,300 active personnel and 16,400 reserve personnel. The country also has the 80,000 strong Guardia Civil which falls under the control of the Ministry of Defence in times of a national emergency. The Spanish defence budget is 5.71 billion euros (7.2 Billion USD) a 1% increase for 2015.” The Wikipedia paragraph ends with the ominous sentence that “The increase comes due to security concerns in the country.”
Those figures of course do not include the other police forces, such as the National (Cuerpo de Policía Nacional or “los Grises”)), with a strength of nearly 88,000. This armed force, along with the Guardia Civíl (“los Verdes”), has been traditionally repressive of the Abertzale Left, a task now mostly left to their respective forces in the Basque Country, the Ertzaintza and Policía Forál, forces which, like their counterparts in Catalunya, the Mossos d’Escuadra, have been viciously engaged in repression of the patriotic movements. Then of course there are the municipal police forces inside the Basque Country and elsewhere which can be mobilised as backups to military operations.
Add to that the fact that Nafarroa (the fourth southern Basque province) contains significant Spanish unionist and right-wing elements (it has voted a PP majority for decades) and that much of the Basque Nationalist Party’s following is hostile to the Abertzale Left and it is difficult to see how the AL ever expected to win a straight contest of strength with either state.
Perhaps, like the Irish Republican Movement, with which it has traditionally had fraternal relations, the Abertzale Left thought to make itself such a nuisance to the power occupying it that the latter would get fed up and leave them to it. In both cases but even more obviously so in the case of the Basques, that would have been a serious misreading of the situation and an underestimation of the importance to the power in question of remaining in possession.
It seems clear that the only scenario in which the Basque Country could set up a truly independent state would be one in which the Spanish state at the very least (and probably the French one too) would be unable to send repressive forces in to deal with such an attempt. And what would be the nature of such a scenario? Why, nothing less than that the ruling class of the Spanish state (probably of the French state also) were facing a revolutionary situation across the rest of its territory. Not only would such a situation tie down much of its armed forces but it would have the potential for soldiers refusing to fire on workers, mutinies and defections to revolutionary forces.
Working from such an analysis, activists of the Abertzale Left, as well as organising their movement within the Basque Country, would have been busily building relationships with the revolutionary movements and organisations across the Spanish state. But apart from the electoral alliance for the European Parliamentary elections of 2009 (the creation of the Iniciativa Internacionalista platform, which was the victim of massive electoral fraud by the State), the Abertzale Left has never seriously set about such a project. On the other hand, the formerly-Moscow orientated communist party and left-social democrats across the state, as noted earlier, have also kept at a distance from the Abertzale Left and from their aims. The left coalition of mostly Trotskists, Communists and radical social democrats of Izquierda Unida has done likewise.
There are however small formations of revolutionary communists, anarchists and left-independentists, along with anti-centralist movements with revolutionary potential, as well as a number of anti-unionist and independent trade unions throughout the state. To be sure, the immediate prospects are not glowing – but what other option is there? And how else can one be placed to take advantage of a revolutionary upsurge across the state should one occur?
A significant deviation from the original route
During the 1980s, during an ETA truce, there were peace talks held between ETA and the Spanish Government which came to nothing. Similar overtures during the early 1990s had similar results.
It appears that at some point in the late 1990s, perhaps attracted by the development and apparent gains of the Irish pacification process, the leadership of the Abertzale Left began to look for a different way out of their difficulty. Arnaldo Otegi is widely seen as the architect of this trajectory.
Part of this new approach involved seeking alliances with the PNV and with social-democratic parties within the Basque Country. The PNV is the party of the Basque nationalist bourgeoisie, no longer prepared to fight the Spanish ruling class as it was in 1936. It has its capitalist interests and has a record of jobbery and corruption including its involvement in the TAV, the High-Speed Rail project. It even asked the Spanish state to make militant opposition to this project a terrorist offence. The PNV manages its police allocation, the Ertzaintza, a vicious force active against the Abertzale Left and against striking workers and responsible for the serious injury and death of several. The PNV also manages the Basque TV station EITB and therefore controls both the arms of repression and of propaganda. Although the AL criticises the PNV from time to time this is mostly for the lack of support for a broad front against the Spanish state – AL spokespersons rarely attack it for its capitalist exploitation or jobbery.
Otegi was apparently active with ETA in the French state for around ten years and served three years in a Spanish jail for an ETA kidnapping in 1987, after which he involved himself in political activism. Ten years later the jailing for seven years of senior members of Herri Batasuna left a vacuum in the leadership of the organisation which Otegi filled along with Joseba Permach (sentenced to three years jail in August 2014 – but halved on appeal — in the “social centres trial” which confiscated the assets of the centres) and Pernando Barrena.
Otegi led a number of initiatives for the Abertzale Left to embark on a different path, which combined ETA ceasefires, talks with other parties, and militant rhetoric. The latter landed him with a 15-month sentence of which he eventually served one year. Subsequently he has been arrested a number of times, convicted twice and exonerated twice. In 2011 he was charged with trying to rebuild Batasuna, the AL party banned by the Spanish state and was sentenced to ten years; this was reduced on appeal to 6.5 years so that he is due out soon. In 2013 he was elected General Secretary of the AL social-democratic political party Sortu.
Despite the relatively short prison sentence (compared to many other Basque prisoners) and the fact that he appears to be in good health, a campaign was started for Otegi’s release and a petition circulated around and outside the movement. This broke a long-standing rule in the movement that there would be no campaigning for individual Basque political prisoners, from which an exception was previously made only in the cases of seriously-ill prisoners. Nevertheless the campaign petition and Facebook page has been circulated through the movement without any official condemnation — or even distancing from — by the AL leadership. However the campaign has attracted some muted criticism across the movement.
The AL leadership proposed a “peace process” but the problem was that, unlike the case with the British, the Spanish ruling class had no interest in developing anything like that. Their aim was to crush the movement with an iron glove, not to “choke it with butter” as their British counterparts had done.
So the Abertzale Left took the road of unilateral ceasefire. This seemed to many of their friends a doomed tactic since it left the Basques with nothing to bargain. In September 2010, ETA announced a ceasefire, saying it wished to use “peaceful, democratic means” to realise the aspirations of the Basque people. The Spanish state’s reaction was not encouraging but nevertheless on 20th October the following year, the organisation announced a “cessation of armed activity”. This followed the conclusion of the “International Peace Conference” held in Donostia/San Sebastián.
The composition of the conference was clear indication of the AL leadership’s projected route and in particular the type of allies it sought internationally: former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Interior Minister of France Pierre Joxe, President of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams and British diplomat Jonathan Powell, who had served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff. To summarise, a collection of servants and executives of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and even executives of repression and one exposed in a financial corruption scandal.
The declaration at the conclusion of the conference was also supported by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, former US President Jimmy Carter and the former US Senator and former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George J. Mitchell. In other words, former leaders of US and British Imperialism and one of their agents.
Despite the abandonment of armed struggle by the Abertzale Left leadership, the meeting did not include Spanish or French government representatives and the ruling classes of both states remained unreceptive to the overtures of the AL leadership. Not only that, but the Spanish state continues to arrest the movement’s activists, to torture and to jail them. No amount of criticism by committees for the prevention of torture working for the UN or for the EU, nor condemnation by Amnesty International and many human rights associations within the Spanish state, have had any visible impact on the operations of the Spanish state in recent years. And “confessions” obtained by torture continue to be used as admissible ‘evidence’ for the Prosecution even when withdrawn by the victim and the torturers denounced in court.
The ETA ceasefire continues to date and a number of other statements have been made by ETA including one in which they announced the destruction of a number of weapons, verified by a decommissioning expert. A number of “international conferences” have been held with further calls on the Spanish state to cooperate, also without significant result.
Xabat Moran, Bergoi Madernaz, Marina Sagastizabal, Aiala Zaldibar and Igarki Robles, five of the seven Basque youth sentenced to six years by the Audiencia Nacional (special Spanish Court) last Spring, have been freed this Wednesday.
Translation of press report NAIZ|from MADRID|2015/11/04|5 IRUZKINel juicio. (J. DANAE/ARGAZKI PRESS) and comment from https://www.facebook.com/dublinbasque/posts/1063431863690750
Xabat Moran, Bergoi Madernaz, Marina Sagastizabal, Igarki Robles and Aiala Zaldibar were sentenced to six years together with Ibon Esteban y Ainhoa Villaverde.
During the afternoon it emerged that the five would be freed, hours after the Supreme Court made held a public hearing in which the State Prosecutor left the possibility of reducing the sentences in the hands of the Tribunal, while the Defence asked for the accused to be cleared of all charges.
The five have left prison and began the journey home.
The exact content of the Supreme Court’s decision is not yet known and whether this will affect the situation of Ibon Esteban and Ainhoa Villaverde is not yet known.
Twenty-eight youth were accused of membership of SEGI, the Basque Abertzale Left youth group and tried in the same trial, of which the Prosecutor withdrew charges against twelve. Later, others were discharged due to lack of evidence and in the end seven were sentenced to six years.
Villaverde, Moran, Sagastizabal and Madernaz were detained by the Ertzaintza (Basque police) before their sentences were announced, while Esteban, Robles y Zaldibar became fugitives, only to reappear in the “Human Wall” in Gastheiz/ Vitoria, where they were arrested.
While friends and relatives will of course celebrate the decision, one commentator said: “The point for the Spanish state is to close down all legal political outlets in terms of campaigning around human, civil and political rights in the Basque Country. That leaves only the armed struggle, with which in recent decades ETA (Homeland and Freedom) has been clearly unsuccessful.”
A finding of guilt against these political activists needs to be seen in the context of the jailing of a number of political prisoners’ lawyers not so long ago and the currently ongoing trial of five political activists of Askapena, the organisation with responsibility for coordinating international solidarity work from and for the Basque Country.
For four years now ETA has been on the “permanent ceasefire” it announced at the time, yet Basque political activists continue to be charged with “assisting terrorism” or “glorifying” it.
Another point to bear in mind is that when the 28 youth, including those against whom the State later withdrew charge or the Court found “not guilty”, were originally arrested in October 2014, it was in a heavy military-style operation, they were taken from the Basque Country to Madrid, held incommunicado and a number were tortured. Then when bailed, they had to return to Madrid later to face trial, they and their supporters having to pay for travel and accommodation. The Spanish state does not have a record of paying compensation to those it has wrongfully accused or even imprisoned, not to speak of tortured, except on occasion under orders from the European Court of Human Justice in Strasbourg.
The “Human Wall” was a tactic developed and employed mostly by Basque Youth as a civil disobedience tactic, beginning in 2013 and lasting until 2014. Typically, the person wanted by the authorities appeared in the middle of a large crowd of supporters who linked arms. The police (in all those cases, the Ertzaintza) were obliged, in order to detain the fugitives, to spend a number of hours breaking up the “human wall” in order to obtain their objective and hand the fugitive over to the Guardia Civil, all the time being denounced by those forming part of the ‘wall’ and protesters standing by, the whole event being filmed and photographed, reaching an international audience. Variations on the “Wall” were practiced in Donosti/ San Sebastian, Gastheiz/ Vitoria, Pasaia, Navarra and Gernika. http://www.naiz.eus/eu/actualidad/noticia/20151104/queda-en-libertad-xabat-moran-uno-de-los-siete-condenados-por-la-an
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.”
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 (https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=955747).
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.
(Main source on the various statements: Deia, 4th September 2015)
The Spanish state is set to close 107 Basque social centres, confiscate their funds and sell off their assets, including property. With allegiance to the Basque Patriotic Left, the “Izquierda Abertzale” as it terms itself in Spanish, the Herriko Tabernak (“Peoples’ Taverns”) function as centres for social, cultural and political activity. The sale of coffee, alcohol and pintxos (a variety of home-produced small items of food, mostly eaten cold) also generates income with which to employ some activists within the movement and also to fund some of its political activities.
Those are the socially-useful functions of the Herriko Tabernak and precisely the reasons the Spanish state plans to close them down. Not that they say that openly, of course – the official line is that the taverns “fund terrorism”. Never mind that the police have never furnished any evidence of that, never mind too that the alleged recipient, the armed organisation ETA, has been in uninterrupted ceasefire since 5th September 2011, confirmed as “permanent” in a statement the following January and again as a “permanent cessation of armed activity” in October 2012.
There is an herriko taberna in many vilages and in every town throughout much of the southern Basque Country (i.e the part under Spanish state rule) and Bilbao, for example, has several. They vary from one another but typically have a front bar area and a rear or upstairs function room which may be used for political, cultural,
educational or social event, or hired for personal social functions such as celebrating a birthday, successful conclusion of studies, an engagement or wedding, a return for a migrant. Social functions of a more political nature such as welcoming a recently-released political prisoner or a commemoration of some figure of the resistance are also held there.
Although people hostile to the ‘herrikos’ would not usually enter one, anyone can do so and order coffee, beer or soft drink, perhaps buy some pintxos – no-one will bother them. The language of conversation inside may be Euskera (Basque) or Castellano (Spanish) but all the staff have at least enough Euskera for the customers’ needs and many are fluent.
On the walls notices and posters carry political, cultural or social messages or advertise an event, either specific to the Basque Country or perhaps in solidarity with the Palestinians, the Saharaui (Western Sahara people), or to do with gender and sexuality-social issues, workers’ and migrants’ rights, animal rights ….
Photo portraits of prisoners are “glorification of terrorism”
Recently, the walls carried photo portraits of political prisoners from the area. After the Spanish National Court decreed, a few years ago, that these were expressions of “glorification of terrorism”, the police raided many herriko tabernak (and also sympathetic bars) and arrested those who refused to take them down. The herrikos and bars affected then removed the portraits but replaced them with black silhouettes. Despite a widespread expectation that those arrested would face prison terms, nothing happened and the pictures are back up on the walls of the herrikos.
The herriko closures are expected after the Spanish state’s General Elections, which must be held before December and are expected in October or November. According to opinion polls, both traditional governing parties, the PP and the PSOE, are ahead of all others and even Podemos, with its meteoric rise to December 2014, did not overtake them and continues to show a decline in the voting intentions of those polled. In the southern Basque Country itself, the christian democratic Basque Nationalist Party continues to dominate and, even if they wished to help the party to their left (and they don’t), could not stand up against the Spanish state. A political solution therefore is out of reach.
When the herrikos close, the loss will be enormous: the organised movement will suffer politically, culturally and financially and the social and cultural life of thousands will suffer. There seems little that the Abertzale Left movement can do within the Spanish state – its legal challenge in the Supreme Court has failed. It can apply to the Constitutional Court but decisions there usually concur with those of the Supreme. After the Constitutional, it can apply to Europe, to either the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg or the Court of International Justice at the Hague but the delay in cases being heard there can take years and by the time they are heard, the herrikos will have been closed and properties auctioned off. Nor are the European Courts’ decisions necessarily to the benefit of the Basques – although a number of times Strasbourg has found against the Spanish state for failing to investigate a claim of torture by a political prisoner, it has never actually found the state guilty of the torture itself. And when the Abertzale Left’s political party, Herri Batasuna, was banned by the Spanish Supreme Court (and confirmed by the Constitutional) in 2003, the movement took the case to Strasbourg. Eventually, in 2009, the Court delivered its judgement – incredibly, it decided that banning a political party with electoral support varying from 15% to nearly 25% in the southern Basque Country was not an abuse of the human rights of the people concerned.
Considering the options and Spanish democracy
Now the people are considering their options in action outside the courts. Should they occupy the buildings and resist their takeover by the Spanish state? Maybe that would make sense where their location is a fairly high-profile one. But others are in back streets and laneways; the “Zipayos” (pejorative name for the Euskadi police, the Ertzaintza) can swarm those places, assault the occupants and evict them in a matter of hours. That they can do the same in the more high-profile locations is without doubt but at least the community and passers-by will see the resistance there. In the smaller villages, herrikos may change their name and perhaps replace the buildings’ renters or lessees. Whatever course they take, the disruption overall will be huge.
In 1998, the Spanish National Court judge Balthazar Garzon (beloved of many liberals around the world) closed down the Basque-language newspaper Egin, a bilingual daily in Euskera and Castellano first published 20 years earlier. Over a year later, a judge ruled that the newspaper could reopen but by then its machinery had been dismantled or left unusable and its owners left without funds as they were using them in court proceedings. In 2009, a Spanish court finally decided that there had been no grounds for closing it in the first place. A year later, there was a similar decision in the case of Egunkaria, the first-ever daily in the Basque language, closed down by the Spanish state in 2003. In 2010, the National Court decided that there had been no reason to close the newspaper and that the accused were innocent, hinting that the accusation of torture was true. But no formal apology followed, nor was there any compensation paid and Otamendi, the newspaper’s manager, had to take his torture case to Strasbourg, where in 2012 he was awarded compensation of €20,000 (and €4,000 legal costs) against the Spanish state because (as usual) they had not bothered to investigate his claims of torture. No compensation has yet been paid for Egunkaria‘s closure and its successor, Berria, reportedly struggles financially today.
Basques smile ruefully when students of recent Spanish history talk about the “democratisation” of the State through the “Transition” from General Franco’s dictatorship. Apart from the killing by Spanish police and state-supported fascist gangs during that Transition, the southern Basque Country has seen state-organised assassination squads, bannings of newspapers and radio stations, bannings of political parties, youth and cultural organisations and arrests, torture and jailing of political activists. This is the reality behind the words of “Spanish state democracy”.
INIGO CABACAS KILLED BY RUBBER BULLET FIRED BY BASQUE POLICE IN 2012 — STILL NO JUSTICE FOR FAMILY OR FRIENDS
Most Basques and especially supporters of their most popular football team, Athletic Bilbao1, were very happy in the early evening of 5th April 2012 .
Their team had beaten a football giant in the UEFA cup twice and another premier European team once. The fans were expecting Athletic to win or at least draw again that evening, in which case Athletic Bilbao were through to the second leg of the quarter-finals. They had no idea that the evening would end with a police riot squad firing rubber bullets into a festive crowd, causing the death of a young fan.
The high expectations of that evening in Bilbao were the result of a run of wins for the Athletic team. On March 8th 2012, Athletic Bilbao beat Manchester United 3-2 on their own ground, at Old Trafford.
One needs to know a few population statistics to understand what an achievement that was. Manchester United is a football team on the world stage, based in a city with a population of 2.55 million – that is not far from the population figure for the entire Basque Country. In addition, Manchester United’s players are drawn from around the world; Athletic recruits only Basque players from a total population of the Basque Country of less than 3 million.
A week after their win in the northern England city, on March 13th, Athletic faced Manchester United again, this time on the Basque team’s home ground, San Mames, in Bilbao. Manchester Utd. were beaten 2-1 and it seemed that the Basque lions2 were unstoppable.
These wins created a huge interest in the next game, which was with FC Schalke 04 on March 29th at the German team’s home ground. Schalke plays in the top tier of the German football league and have won many championships including one UEFA League. With around 130,000 members, Schalke 04 is the third-largest sports club in the world in terms of membership, behind their compatriot rival FC Bayern Munich and Portuguese club SL Benfica.
Athletic Bilbao is not a sports conglomerate – it is a football club which is owned by its 40,000 members (remember, this is a small country – that’s nearly 1.5% of the whole population! It’s also around 11% of the population of their home base, Bilbao). The management board is elected by the membership.
At Schalke 04’s home ground on March 29th, the Bilbaino team beat them 2-4. The interest was therefore at fever-pitch for Athletic’s return match with the German team at Athletic’s home ground, San Mames on 5th April. The result was a 2-2 draw but Athletic were ahead 6-4 on aggregate and the fans were delighted. Bilbao was, as they say, buzzing.
After matches, young fans especially go to different pubs around town. Inigo Cabacas and many others went to an Herriko Taberna (a “Peoples’ Tavern”, i.e. one managed by the Abertzale [Basque pro-Independence] Left) which is located in an small “square” with planters, connected by alley with Licenciado Poza street. This small “square” is off the María Díaz de Haro street near the stadium; it runs parallell with the San Mames street itself, an area of bars well-known as a destination for fans after a game at the stadium.
The Herriko is too small to accommodate all those who gathered there but that was no problem for the area outside took the overspill. Early in the evening a few people were seen scuffling there and the rest of the crowd around them told them to knock it off, this was a time for celebration, etc. The scuffle ended and the festivities continued.
Some time later, a van load of police arrived. These were the Ertzaintza, a Basque Police force of 7,500 created in 1982 which has had numerous clashes with Basque strike pickets and with the Abertzale (pro-Independence) Left. Supporters of the Abertzale Left and many others refer to the Ertzaintza as “zipayos” (i.e. “sepoys”, local soldiers recruited by colonial occupiers). The Ertzaintza are responsible to the Basque Autonomous Region Government (CAV), a semi-autonomous entity covering three of the four southern Basque provinces.
Some of the youth perceive the arrival of the masked and helmeted police as a provocation and begin to throw bottles at the van.
The police officer in charge of those in the van asks for reinforcements and these are sent. The police emerge from their vans and begin to fire rubber bullets3 at the crowd at quite close range (the “square” is less than 45 metres at its furthest from the street) and everyone scatters except for a small group who are throwing bottles at the police but even they eventually dive for cover. People are sheltering in doorways, huddled up against the walls on each side of the “square”. Some are inside the pub wondering what is going on. A local shop-manager has raised the shutter over his doorway and people crowd in there. Some people are sheltering behind the wooden planters that are in a line down the centre of the narrow square.
After some time three young men walk towards the police with their hands in the air, asking them to stop firing rubber bullets; the police strike them with batons. Meanwhile it comes to the attention of some in the crowd nearby that a person is lying on the ground, apparently unconscious with blood coming from his ear and the rear of his head. People go to his aid and one of his friends recognises Inigo Cabacas. He gets his mobile phone and rushes towards the police telling them that someone has been seriously injured and to call an ambulance. A police officer tells him to drop the mobile. Inigo’s friend repeats his urgent request and the police officer tells him again to drop the mobile and hits him with a truncheon. The man drops his mobile and retreats from the police.
The police advance into the area and reach the injured man who has some people around him; a women is rendering first aid. A policeman tells her to move away. She tells him the man needs and ambulance and that she is applying pressure to stop the bleeding. He says he wants to see for himself and pulls at her arm but after awhile desists and goes away.
Eventually an ambulance arrives and takes Inigo Cabacas, still unconscious, to hospital, where he lies in a coma.
(video of the scene of the incident and interviews with friends and witnesses with English subtitles)
The news runs through a city, a shock in the midst of its celebrations and soon afterwards throughout the Basque Country. The first official reaction is given by the Interior Minister of the Basque Autonomous Regional Government, who declares to the press that the Ertzaintza acted properly and in line with their procedures, although he regrets the unfortunate death of they young man. He also repeats the first line of defence given by the Ertzaintza, that they were called to help someone injured in a fight and that the crowd was preventing the ambulance in attendance from rendering assistance to the injured.
When eye-witnesses give their version and the reporters of some newpapers begin to gather information, it becomes clear that the Minister could not possibly have investigated the incident in the time available. Furthermore, it emerges that no ambulance attended until after the incident with the police and that it appears that no call for one had been made earlier. Furthermore, according to the woman who attended to Inigo at the scene, the ambulance paramedic told her, when she complained at their delay in arriving, that the police had delayed their entrance. Under a storm of criticism from civil society and from the Abertzale Left party, EH Bildu, the Minister promises a full investigation.
Inigo Cabacas dies after three days without having recovered consciousness.
Some time later, a recording of the police communications on the night is made available by GARA, a pro-Independence Basque daily newspaper. The following becomes clear from the recording:
The Controller at Ertzaintza HQ calls a police van leader and directs him to attend the Herriko, saying that a fight has occurred there and that someone is injured.
The van leader reports that they have arrived and that some are throwing bottles at them, that they require reinforcements. No mention of ambulance.
The Controller confirms reinforcements are being sent.
Reinforcements arrive. One of the van leaders now reports that nothing is happening, everything is ok.
The Controller replies that he wants the police to go in and take possession of the area and make any arrests necessary. He emphasises that he wants to be understood clearly, that they are to “go into the Herriko with everything we have”, to take control of the area “and then everything will be ok.”
The van leader replies that the order is understood and soon shots are heard (the firing of rubber bullets).
The family employs a solicitor. A judge is appointed to carry out the investigation but is required to do so along with her other duties. Immediately, the police investigation ceases (according to the family’s lawyer, ithe file contains just three pages), using the excuse of the judicial investigation.
A number of legal applications are made, e.g. for all the police at the incident to be obliged to make a statement, for all police who fired a rubber bullet gun to be identified, for the Controller to be obliged to make a statement, but all are refused by a judge, giving a number of reasons4. Little is established over the following three years, except that threepolice voluntarily admit to having fired rubber bullets and the identity of the Controller on the evening becomes widely known. There is widespread outrage when the senior officer on duty the day of Inigo’s death is appointed Chief of the Ertzaintza.At a recent press conference, the Cabacas family’s lawyer, Jone Goirizelaia, announced that they had possibly identified the officer who had fired the fatal shot.
It emerged during the campaign by supporters of the Cabacas family that no recognised procedure was followed by the police with regard to the incident: debriefing statements were not taken from each of the police participants, guns were not examined to identify which had been fired, no inventory was taken of the number of rubber bullets fired. No attempt was made to contact witnesses after the event to gain a picture of what had occurred. Indeed, some witnesses who approached the police station to give statements were told to go away (see video link posted earlier in this article). It further appears that the Ertzaintza have been issued with no specific operational instructions with regard to the firing of rubber bullets.
According to some sources, the rubber bullets should only be fired at knee-height and at no less than 50 metres from the target. The “square” is, according to locals, less than 45 metres at its furthest from the street and therefore the police from the moment they began firing, were in serious breach of the minimum distance requirements. In addition, the Ertzaintza have frequently been seen aiming their rubber bullet guns at protesters’ faces from as little as a metre or two and also firing from the shoulder with the muzzle parallel to the ground, i.e. directed at head or chest-height of the target. Also, the rubber-coated steel balls bounce uncontrollably.
Rubber bullets against Palestinians
Rubber bullets are regularly fired by the Israeli army at Palestinians. A Palestinian source reports: “Israeli professor Michael Krausz and colleagues at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa analysed the medical records of 595 casualties admitted to hospital during the October 2000 protests by Palestinians living inside Israel (typically described as “Israeli Arabs” by the media). Of those, 152 were found to have been injured by rubber-coated metal bullets. Injuries were distributed randomly across their bodies but were most common on the patients’ arms and legs, and on their head, neck and face.
“The doctors said their findings dismissed the theory that “rubber bullets” were safe. Rubber-coated metal bullets with some of their rubber coating removed, revealing their hard steel core. Fired at speeds of what must be several hundred feet a second, these are munitions that cause enough damage that their manufacturers feel compelled to describe them as only ‘less lethal’.
“Writing in the Lancet, they said firing the bullets at civilians made it ‘impossible to avoid severe injuries to vulnerable body regions such as the head, neck and upper torso, leading to substantial mortality, morbidity and disability.’ They added: ‘We reported a substantial number of severe injuries and fatalities inflicted by use of rubber bullets ….. This type of ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control. “The study, ‘Blunt and penetrating injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in October, 2000: a retrospective study’ (The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9320, Page 1795), also highlighted previous research which suggested that even plastic bullets may not be safe and may cause more severe head injuries.” (Sourced at http://electronicintifada.net/content/misleading-terminology-rubber-bullets/4000)
It emerged in 2013 during a compensation case taken by a Derry man blinded in 1972 that the authorities knew that the missiles were potentially lethal even before they issued them. (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/11/mod-rubber-bullets-lethal-records) It is clear also from a wealth of evidence that the missiles were regularly fired by soldiers and police not only at close range but also aimed at chest or head. In addition, a deadly ‘game’ was played by some British soldiers. Knowing that rubber and plastic bullets were collected by children as mementoes and objects to sell to tourists, soldiers would fire some into an open area and wait for children to run forward to collect them, then see if they could hit the children with subsequent rounds.
Rubber bullets in the Spanish state
The Spanish state continues to allow its police forces to carry and to fire rubber-coated metal bullets, in particular at protesting Basques and Catalans (see video link at bottom below article). Recently, the EU expressed concern at Spanish police firing at migrants attempting to swim into the Spanish state from Morocco, an occasion when 11 of the migrants drowned. But no international protest criticises them for firing potentially lethal missiles at their own citizens. Police in the Spanish state enjoy impunity and none more so than in the Basque and Catalan countries as well as with regard to African migrants.This week, a motion was put to the Basque Parliament to ban the use of rubber bullets in the area under its control (CAV). Instead a proposal was accepted to “restrict” the use of the missiles to “situations of grave danger” to the police, and to “definitely seek a replacement” for them. The Spanish right-wing PP, the liberal Spanish unionist UPyD, along with the PNV (Basque Nationalists), currently in power, voted for it, along with the Basque version of the Spanish social-democrats, the PSE. The only party to vote against the amendment was EH Bildu, party of the Abertzale (pro-Independence) Left; they had proposed the original motion, seeking a total ban and the removal of the missiles.
Among those in the public gallery at the discussion were the parents of Inigo Cabacas. Afterwards, in the corridor outside, they confronted the spokesperson of the PNV, Joseba Egibar. During the exchange, another PNV parliamentarian, Luke Uribe-Etxebarria, tried to prevent its filming by the Basque TV station ETB. That attempt will be the subject of a complaint to the President of the Parliament by EH Bildu; they view it as particularly serious since Uribe-Etxebarria is also on the management board of the TV station and the filming was taking place in areas open to the public.
“I’m never coming to this Parliament again …. I feel cheated,” said Manuel Cabacas, father of the deceased, speaking about the majority decision. “My son is dead …. I only wanted to ensure that it would never happen to anyone else ….”
On the third anniversary of the killing of Inigo “Pitu” Cabacas, among many commemorative vents in the Basque Country, 10 minutes’ silence was observed in the San Mames stadium. Alongside Inigo Cabacas; many are also remembering Aitor Zabaleta, fan of the Real Sociedad team, murdered in Madrid in 1998 by fascist ultras of Club Atletico Madrid. Many Basques around the world will be conscious of the three years that have passed since Inigo’s killing without anyone being even charged in connection with his death or any noticeable change, whether in Basque police behaviour, procedure or their use of rubber-coated steel projectiles. A change of political control of the Basque Regional Government from the social-democratice party of Patxi Lopez to the Basque Nationalist Party .(PNV) of Urkullu has had no effect.
It is true that for ordinary people, in capitalist society, the wheels of justice move very slowly; in this case it is hard to see that they are moving at all.
NB:DUBLIN: A group of Basques plan to hold a commemorative event on Tuesday 28th April, on the day of a Basque derby, Bilbao Athletic v. Real Sociedad. They plan to hold a protest picket at the O’Connell Monument in Dublin’s O’Connell Street at 7pm for a short while and afterwards to go to watch the Basque derby (kick-off at 9pm) at the Living Room bar, Cathal Brugha St. Some Dublin-based Irish people have undertaken to support the Basques by participation in both events. Poster for event: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153291310864390&set=gm.1624681737767253&type=1&theater
Short but shocking Guardian video of Catalan police using rubber bullets and the testimonies of victims who have lost an eye to the missiles:
1 Based in Bilbao, it is the most popular and most successful (two things that often go together) but not the only football team; there are also Real Sociedad, based in Donosti/San Sebastian and Osasuna, based in Iruña/ Pamplona.
2 A roaring lion is the emblem of the team, arising from the legend of St. Mames, to whom the local church is dedicated and which gives its name to the area, street and stadium. English-language football commentators persisted in calling the team “the Spanish lions” or “the Spanish cavaliers” (??!), in total ignorance, one hopes, of quite how insulting that would be perceived by the players and their fans. The Basque Country is not even politico-geographically Spain, it is divided between the Spanish and French states. And Bilbao Athletic is most certainly not, nor has it ever been, a Spanish team. When the Spanish King attends finals or semi-finals between Barcelona and Athletic in, yes, a Spanish football league, and the Spanish national anthem is played, the stadium fills with howls of derision, hoots and whistles from the supporters of both teams.
3 These are about the size of a tennis ball, perhaps a little smaller, of steel and coated in rubber.
4 E.g., the Controller could not be held responsible for the shooting by the police; individual police would have to be accused of firing the fatal shot if they were to be obliged to make a statement …
In the third week of the month of December two daring ambushes took place, one in Ireland and one in Spain. Both were carried out by national liberation organisations and both were very daring, aimed at extremely high-level military and state targets who were well-protected in cities controlled by the occupying state. The ambushes were one day on the calendar apart but 64 years separated them; the date of the Dublin one was December 19th 1919 and the the other took place on December 20th 1973 in Madrid.
BACKGROUND TO THE IRISH ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
The target of the Irish ambush was Field Marshal John French. No-one resident in Ireland could rank higher in the British Empire; the British Queen and state’s representative in Ireland, French had been appointed Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland in 1918. Of course, it was not the first time that the Irish resistance had set its sights so high – in 1882 in Phoenix Park in Dublin, the Republican group The Invincibles had assassinated the Chief Secretary for Ireland, at that time the Queen’s representative, along with Thomas Burke, the Permanent Undersecretary and the Queen’s most senior civil servant in Ireland.
Field Marshal John French had previously held the positions of Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Forces and, at the start of the First World War, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Under General Maxwell, he oversaw the suppression of the 1916 Rising and subsequent executions. Had the British government imposed conscription in Ireland in 1918, as threatened, he would have been in charge of seeing it through and had in fact pressed for the measure to be introduced. In the event, the opposition to conscription in Ireland was so widescale, including from the Irish Catholic Church, usually so loyal to the British, that an insurrection was feared if they went ahead with it.
John French was from a Norman-English family settled in Wexford in the fourteenth century with large property in Roscommon and, though his family had gone to live in England in the eighteenth century and he himself was born in Kent, French always regarded himself as “Irish”. John’s father had been a Royal Navy Commander and John himself pursued a military career, first in the Royal Navy and later in the Army. His record in the Navy was below expectations, as was his initial Army career. However, he made his name on a number of military engagements in the Second Boer War and Second Morocco Crisis and with the help of some allies who had political and military clout, was appointed Chief of the Imperial Military Staff in 1912. He resigned his position over the Curragh ‘Mutiny’ incident in 1914 but was given command of the British Expeditionary Force in France and in Belgium during the First World War. He was later forced to resign over his handling of this command, particularly in regard to his difficult relations with high-level French officers, but was given command of the defence of Britain.
In May 1918, French was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland. The political situation in Ireland was unstable as the republican (or “advanced nationalist”) opposition was gaining ground against the old nationalist opposition. The latter had been embarrassed by the British failure to implement Home Rule, which was on the statute books but not enacted, while the former varied from those demanding Home Rule immediately to those who wanted complete national independence. The formerly Irish monarchist party Sinn Féin had been coopted by the Irish Republican Brotherhood after the 1916 Rising and it became a republican/nationalist hegemonising political force while at the same time being a coalition of different political viewpoints. Outside of this, Labour also had some sway, particularly in some areas and was also opposed to the Nationalist party; Sinn Féin and Labour Councillors cooperated with one another on many occasions. In the British General Elections of December 1918, in Ireland, the newly-changed Sinn Féin nearly wiped the Nationalist party off the electoral map and decided to set up their own parliament, or Dáil, in Ireland and not to attend the British Parliament in Westminster.
The Royal Irish Constabulary, the armed colonial police force in Ireland since 1822, was the subject of a boycott campaign and physical attacks on its members.
The Irish Republican Army, reorganised after the Rising, was in training in many areas. Some of its foremost soldiers and leaders, men like Dan Breen, Sean Treacey, Sean Hogan and Séamus Robinson were of the opinion that only through a liberation war could Ireland be freed from British rule; they were therefore eager for that war to start.
There was no indication that this was the dominant opinion among the elected representatives of Sinn Féin, the TDs (Teachtaí Dála) and, indeed, many were of the opinion that the British could be pressured into a negotiated settlement, without the need for any armed struggle. One of the latter was Arthur Griffiths himself, founder of the party.
On the same day as the setting up of the Dáil and its declaration of independence from Britain, 21st January 1919, Breen, Treacey, Hogan, Robinson and five other less famous IRA volunteers ambushed a Royal Irish Constabulary escort for a consignment of gelignite in Tipperary, during which they shot dead both of the police escort and took their weapons as well as the explosives. The shooting dead of the RIC in the Soloheadbeg Ambush was a calculated act and Dan Breen later wrote:
“ …we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces … The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected.”
Nevertheless, they had begun the War of Independence, which was to last three years.
A number of times during 1919, the armed struggle advocates in the IRA carried out military operations through which they sought to provoke a response from the British that would launch the national liberation war and sweep the Dáil into going on a war footing too. Tens of RIC were killed along with a few British soldiers. The British responded by imposing martial law on particular areas and carrying out raids and arrests. The IRA however were moving towards a full war footing with the British and, in many areas, were already there.
As 1919 moved on the British outlawed Irish political and cultural organisations: the Dáil, Sinn Féin, Conradh na Gaeilge and other nationalist organisations and publications had been banned, along with the Freeman’s Journal and some other weeklies. In addition, cattle fairs and other gatherings had been forbidden and all car licences apart from those for lorries had to be applied for to the police, a requirement which had occasioned a chauffeurs’ strike. However, neither Sinn Féin nor the Dáil considered itself at war yet.
The planned ambush on Ashtown Road on 19th December 1921 was intended to change that irrevocably for the target was none other than Field Marshal John French, Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland.
THE ASHTOWN ROAD AMBUSH
According to some sources, the IRA had set out to kill French on 12 separate occasions but each time something had intervened. One of those occasions was on November 11th 1919. Expecting him to pass in minutes on Grattan Bridge on his way to a banquet at Trinity College, Seán Hogan had pulled and thrown away the pins on two grenades and was holding down the timers with his fingers. French did not show and Hogan had to walk all the way to a safe house with his fingers holding down the timers on the grenades in his pockets. Luckily they had spare pins in the house.
In December, French had gone down to his family country estate at Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon, to host a reception there and was expected back in a couple of days. His movements were being monitored and the day he would set off by train for Dublin was reported to the ambush squad. He was expected to get out at Ashtown train station, the last one before the Broadstone terminus, and go from there with military escort to the Lord Lieutenant’s Residence (nowadays the US Ambassador’s) in Phoenix Park. An IRA party of 11, including Breen, Treacey, Robinson and Hogan set out to ambush the convoy and assassinate Lord Lieutenant French. The ambush party was already in place at Kelly’s pub (now called the Halfway House) on the Ashdown road as ‘chance customers’ when word reached them that French had alighted from the train. A Royal Irish Constabulary officer who had accosted them earlier had been knocked unconscious and dumped to one side. The information received was that French would be in the second car in the convoy.
A hay cart had been placed half-way across the road. As the first car and outrider passed it, the IRA Volunteers pushed the cart the rest of the way and engaged the second car with grenades, Mills bombs, rifles and pistols. However, French was in the first car and got away unhurt and the soldiers in the third car in the convoy arrived and began firing with machine guns and rifles at the Volunteers, along with the soldiers in the second car returning fire.
Martin Savage, a Volunteer who had met Breen and Hogan by chance the previous day and begged to be allowed to participate, was fatally wounded and his body had to be left near the scene. Several RIC and British soldiers were wounded with perhaps a fatality and the convoy withdrew towards Phoenix Park. The Volunteers knew that reinforcements would be sent soon so they dispersed to safe houses. Breen had been shot in the leg but managed to get away by bicycle.
The next morning, the Irish Independent published an article which described the attackers as “assassins” and included other such terms as “criminal folly”, “outrage” and “murder.” Taking these terms as an insult to their dead comrade, on Sunday, at 9pm, between twenty and thirty Volunteers under Peadar Clancy entered the offices of the Independent and began to dismantle and smash the machinery.
REACTION OF THE DÁIL AND SOME OTHER REPUBLICANS
Many of the Dáil TDs were shocked by the assassination attempt and among Irish Republicans who severely criticised the IRA within the movement was Charlotte Despard.
This might have been expected since she was sister to Field Marshal French, except that Charlotte had developed Republican sympathies and had settled in Dublin after the War. She had a background in social welfare and socialist political activity in Britain, including active membership in the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and the sufragette Women’s Social and Political Union and was a fierce critic of her brother. During the Irish War of Independence, Charlotte Despard, together with Maud Gonne, formed the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League which organised support for republican prisoners. Later, as a member of Cumann na mBan, she was to oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty and to be imprisoned by the Free State Government during the Civil War.
REACTION OF THE BRITISH
The British military and police, under orders from French, of course replied to the assassination attempt with intensified repression and harassment of the civilian population in an attempt to drive a wedge between them and the IRA. The ambush and attempt on the life of the Lord Lieutenant and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland no doubt helped Churchill, Secretary of War and Minister of the Air, push his idea of special counter-insurgency forces to act as auxillary police in Ireland, i.e. forces of state terrorism, who were to become known as the “Black and Tans” (abbreviated to “Tans”). Recruitment began that very month in London and the first recruits were in the field in January 1920. In July, the Auxillary Division of the RIC was set up, a much more efficient terror force composed almost entirely of British ex-soldiers of former NCO and officer rank.
With the “Tans” and the “Auxies” in the field, along with the crumbling RIC and the British Army, a full guerrilla war raged in many counties and cities of Ireland from 1920 to 1921, with torture and shooting or imprisonment of prisoners by the British, along with the burning of non-combatants’ homes and cooperatives. The IRA were carrying out ambushes and assassinations of RIC and their special auxiliary forces, British soldiers and Irish spies. Ironically 1921 was the year the Dáil finally declared war on the British and also the year of the Truce, negotiations and the controversial signing of the Treaty by the Dáil’s delegation in London, in which they accepted Dominion status for a partitioned Ireland.
Dominic Behan wrote a song about the ambush. It has been sung in different versions and with some verses added and omitted. Dominic Behan’s version is on here on 30.23 mins: Wolfhound did their own version here which, on the whole, I prefer, though a little too drawn out and finishing on a climax (which traditional songs never do, anywhere in the world, apparently) .
BACKGROUND TO THE MADRID AMBUSH
Like John French, Don Luis Carrero Blanco, 1st Duke of Carrero Blanco, Spanish Grandee, was a military career man. He entered the Spanish naval academy in 1918, at the age of 14 and participated in the colonial Rif War of 1924-1926. When General Franco and the other Generals led the military uprising against the Popular Front Government in 1936, Carrero Blanco was behind the Republican line and took refuge in the Mexican and later French embassies before working his way across the front to reach the fascist side in June 1937 and serving in their navy.
After the victory of the fascist forces in April 1939 and the instalation of General Franco as Dictator, Carerro Blanco became one of his closest collaborators; he was made vice-admiral (1963) and admiral (1966); he held the post of Vice-President of the state council from 1967 to 1973 and commanded the Navy. On 8th June 1973 Franco named Carerro Blanco Prime Minister of Spain.
Carrero Blanco was very much a supporter of the Spanish military-fascist dictatorship of Franco, a monarchist (Franco had himself installed Juan Carlos de Borbón, the present monarch, as King of Spain) and close to the secretive Opus Dei organisation of Catholic technocrats. Opus Dei, although in favour of authoritarian control of society, was opposed to the fascist Falange and favoured liberalisation of some laws and the penetration of foreign capital, particularly from the US and Europe, to which the Falange were opposed.
It is said that Carrero also opposed the state entering into World War II on the Axis side, for which the Falange were pushing. In the event, neither the Spanish state nor Portugal, both under fascist dictatorships, entered the War and as a result were the only two European fascist regimes which were not overthrown by invasion of one or various of the Allied forces or by popular resistance around the end of the War.
In the 1970s the Spanish ruling class was under pressure to relax its fascist grip and bring in the trappings of capitalist democracy: legalised opposition parties, legalised trade unions, a “free” press, etc. But Spain was ruled by a coalition of various interests, including the fascist Falange, the military caste, Spanish aristocracy, arriviste capitalists, Catholic Church hierarchy …. And they faced not only demands for democracy but also for socialism, including from the rank-and-file of the Communist Party of Spain and of the social-democratic party, the PSOE. Other groups specific to regions or nations within the Spanish state also had demands for democracy and socialism. The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and ETA had been raising demands for regional autonomy or independence and a similar desire was evident in Catalonia.
But most of the Spanish ruling class feared the breakup of the Spanish state and also feared socialism. Many opposed even social-democracy, from those who feared being held to account for their crimes against humanity during the Civil War to those afraid of a moral ‘loosening’ and loss of social control by the Church. But they were also increasingly aware that the military-fascist lid could not be kept on the pot forever – the pressure was building up and something would have to give. However, as Franco went into his old age and illness the Spanish ruling class also feared what would happen after his death. He had been such a central figure of authority, his face even on coinage and stamps, and a unifying force either through fear or loyalty. Although Carrero Blanco was not favourable towards the Falange they trusted him to keep the state going essentially the way it was and so Franco nominating the Admiral as his successor calmed a lot of fears.
Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA, had been formed in the Basque Country in 1959 from socialist and Basque patriotic youth. A youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party, tired of the timidity and lack of action of the parent organisation, had been part of its forming and had accepted the socialist orientation of others graduating from the group EKIN. The young ETA organisation was subjected to the repression usual in the Spanish state after the Civil War and particularly harsh wherever the breakup of the State was threatened – and this was particularly so in the Basque Country. ETA’s supporters were watched and arrests and torture were a constant danger.
In the late 1960s some ETA members began to carry arms. On 7th June 1968, ETA member Txabi Etxebarrieta faced a routine road check by the Guardia Civil. Txabi was armed and determined not to be arrested and tortured — he shot a Guardia Civil member dead and fled on foot; he was chased and himself shot dead. The next ETA armed action that year was however a planned operation. Chief of secret police Melitón Manzanas had a long record of torture inflicted on detainees and of hunting Jews escaping Occupied Europe over the French border and returning them to the Nazis. ETA killed him and from then on ETA was on a guerilla war footing.
In the summer of 1973, a group of Basques pretending to be sculptors rented a flat in Madrid to carry out Operación Ogro (Operation Ogre). Over five months they dug a tunnel under the street outside and filled it with 80 kgs of explosives which had been stolen from a government depot.
On December 20th, 1973, Carrero Blanco was being driven from attending mass to his home in Madrid and accompanied by his bodyguard. As it travelled down the road, a bomb exploded in a tunnel under it with such force that the vehicle was blown right over the roofs of nearby buildings and landed on a balcony on the other side. Both driver and bodyguard were killed immediately and Carrero Blanco died shortly after. One epitaph of macabre humour was that Carerro Blanco had lived a very complete life: he had been born on earth, had lived at sea and died in the air.
In an interview explaining their rationale for Operación Ogro, the ETA operation group said:
“The execution in itself had an order and some clear objectives. From the beginning of 1951 Carrero Blanco practically occupied the government headquarters in the regime. Carrero Blanco symbolized better than anyone else the figure of “pure Francoism” and without totally linking himself to any of the Francoist tendencies, he covertly attempted to push Opus Dei into power. A man without scruples conscientiously mounted his own State within the State: he created a network of informers within the Ministries, in the Army, in the Falange, and also in Opus Dei. His police managed to put themselves into all the Francoist apparatus. Thus he made himself the key element of the system and a fundamental piece of the oligarchy’s political game. On the other hand, he came to be irreplaceable for his experience and capacity to manoeuvre and because nobody managed as he did to maintain the internal equilibrium of Francoism.”
—Julen Agirre, Operation Ogro: The Execution of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco (1975)
There was little criticism of the assassination from the Spanish opposition in exile or underground in the Spanish state. The Spanish ruling class of course condemned the action but it was thrown into disarray. In the confusion, the “modernising” and “liberalising” elements were able to take the initiative.
Less than three months after Carrero Blanco’s assassination his successor, the new prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro, in his first speech to the Cortes (Parliament) on 12 February 1974, promised liberalizing reforms including the right to form political associations. He faced opposition from hardliners within the regime but the transition had begun (how much of a “transition” is another issue).
The assassination of Carrero Blanco was an action taken by ETA perhaps primarily for the Basque struggle for independence and socialism but it had a deep effect across the whole Spanish state. It hastened the “Transition” and turned out to be a Christmas present to the Spanish social democratic and reformist opposition. Later years were to witness how badly they were to repay the Basque resistance.
Diarmuid Breatnach (translation of material from Naiz and writing of article)
Julia Lanas Zamakola, 94 years of age, went shopping as usual in Gernika on Monday 15th December 2014 but ended up in hospital after the Ertzaintza, the Basque Police, raided the market to arrest a Basque political activist.
Jone Amezaga, a young female activist of the Basque pro-Independence Left movement, had been sentenced to 18 months’ jail for allegedly hanging a banner which the State Prosecutor said “glorified terrorism”. Jone denied doing it and said the Ertzaintza, the Basque police, had framed her and declined to present herself to the authorities.
Many things are considered by the Spanish state to be “glorifying terrorism”, including putting up photographs of Basque political prisoners in a public place, bar, café or social centre.
Elderly pensioner Julia Lanas said she had been pushed to the ground by the police during the raid. “My wrist was broken. It was an invasion, of terror. …. The Ertzaintza does not belong to the Basque (Autonomous) Government, they are nothing less than managers for imperial Spain.” “It reminded me of the Civil War,” she said and went on to say that she had survived the dictatorship (Franco’s) and the war and had relatives imprisoned and tortured.
Julia Lanas was given first aid by people in the crowd and then taken by ambulance to the Gernika hospital but they had to leave there because it was full. “There was a lot of solidarity” said Julia Lanas, referring to the crowd in support of Jone Amezaga and to the help she herself received. The 94 year-old woman was treated by the paramedics who then took her home and her son took her to hospital in Bilbao the following day. “The injury was from a telescopic baton,” she said.
After a sustained tussle between uniformed and plain-clothes police and Jone Amezgaga, the Basque activist was taken prisoner by the Ertzaintza, some of whom used their batons on the crowd. Having secured their prisoner, the uniformed Ertzaintza then retreated backwards through the market, followed by the hostile crowd, until they gained the entrance, near to their vehicles and there stopped and faced their opposition.
Jone and her supporters had been expecting the police raid. In 2008 the Abertzale Left, the mass collective of organisations of the Basque pro-Independence Left, announced that they would henceforth use only peaceful methods in pursuit of their goal of self-determination, and the armed organization ETA subsequently declared their “permanent ceasefire”. The Spanish state’s response was to continue its repression of the movement.
The youth section of the Abertzale Left sought to find an appropriate method of resistance and developed the “human wall”. Some of the youth movement activists who had been sentenced by the State, instead of surrendering to the authorities or going “on the run”, presented themselves in public places, surrounded by supporters. The police – always the Basque police except in Nafarroa but sometimes backed by the Guardia Civil – then were obliged to spend a long time pulling people out of the “human wall” before reaching their quarry.
The first of these “human wall” resistance acts was at Donostia/ San Sebastian in April in 2013 when 500 mostly youth surrounded the six youths convicted of membership of SEGI, the Abertzale Left youth organization. SEGI is classed as a “terrorist organization” by the Spanish state and by the EU despite not a single conviction, even in Spanish courts, of an act of violence by the youth organization. The Donosti human wall was followed by another a month later on the bridge at the port of Ondarroa, when hundreds sat, arms linked, between Urtza Alkorta and the Ertzaintza. In October 2013 in Iruňa/ Pamplona, the Policía Nacional of the Spanish state had to dismantle another human wall of resistance to get at Luis Goňi, another youth convicted of SEGI membership. Last year there were two, one in Loiola (Azpeitia) for five youths and the one in Gernika. These “human walls” have now been constructed in three of the four southern Basque provinces (see video links below): Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Nafarroa – only Álava has yet to have one. Jone Amezaga’s arrest was the fifth occasion of the use of the “human wall” in the Basque Country and the second in the province of Bizkaia.
Amezaga, who refutes the charge and the police “evidence’ of “glorification of terrorism”, has been refused permission to remain at liberty while her appeal is being considered. Also it has been the custom of the Spanish state, in cases where the sentence is less than two years, for the convicted not to be taken to jail. The state declined to apply this custom in Amezaga’s case.
That Monday morning of the 15th December in Gernika, the town containing the ancient meeting place of the Basque chiefs and victim of the infamous bombing by Franco’s German bombers during the Civil War, the stalls were set out for the weekly market as usual. However, a number of events of a political nature also took place and the town was draped in the orange colours of LIBRE (“free” in Spanish), an organization created in 2013 to expose and resist Spanish state repression. Around noon, Jone made her appearance, no doubt marked by undercover police and soon afterwards the police raid took place.
It was plain-clothed police who led the assault, a number of individuals, some seen in the video dressed in black-and-white tops and one in a green top. There is no evidence of their identifying themselves by display of their police cards, for example, but it is clear that Jone’s supporters are in no doubt as to who they are. The Ertzaintza, masked and helmeted, in their red-and-black uniforms soon join the fray and eventually Jone is taken into custody. The crowd chants partly in Castillian and partly in Basque: “Jone libre!” (Free Jone!); “Guard dogs of the System!” “Hired killers!” “Abuse of power!”
While awaiting her appeal hearing, a wait which can take many months, Jone may be kept in any of the many prisons across the Spanish state (or across the French state, for those arrested there) throughout which political prisoners, most of which are Basque, are dispersed. She may also be transferred without warning to yet another jail. All this places an enormous strain on the visiting relatives and friends of such individuals — a financial, organizational, emotional and physical strain. And of course there are those who through infirmity are unable for journeys of thousands of kilometres. A number of serious traffic accidents occur on those journeys every year and to date twelve Basque prisoners’ relatives and friends thave lost their lives in those accidents..