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Spain's Road to Reconciliation: Navigating Post-ETA Challenges

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ETA Lay Down Their Arms

ETA or Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna, meaning 'Basque Homeland and Freedom' were an armed militant group who emerged in 1959 to oppose General Franco's military dictatorship in Spain and try to secede from Spain in order to form an independent Basque state. Franco's regime strongly oppressed the Basque culture, identity and language. The Basque region is a region that covers parts of northern Spain and southern France. Its people have some of the oldest heritage in Europe. They have their own distinct language that is completely unique from any other in the world, known as Euskara, whose origins are completely unknown. It is a region that has often looked for independence from Spain, particularly during the aforementioned dictatorship.

 

Throughout the five decades that ETA was active, they killed 850 people in their fight for an independent Basque homeland. Most of those targeted were members of Spain's police force the Guardia Civil. ETA was loathed and feared in Spain. Of their 850 victims, 340 were civilians. As the decades went on and Spain became more liberal and less repressive, the support for ETA in the Basque provinces also waned. (1)

 

In 2011 ETA officially announced they were ending their armed campaign. They began to focus on reconciliation and tried to work politically to achieve some form of autonomy as well as more rights for Basque prisoners, who as a policy were all kept in the far south of Spain – nowhere near the Basque country. 

The Spanish government refused to enter serious talks with ETA while they were still an active group, even in 2017 when the group completely gave up all its weapons stashes, the government would not negotiate. (1) A secret meeting was held between ETA and the Spanish Government through mediaries in 2018 and a few weeks later, without any signed agreement or major prompting, ETA decided to disband as an organisation. They were weakened by arrests and their support was waning – frankly, their campaign was at a complete dead-end. They released a video in which three masked members read out a statement in which ETA unprecedentedly apologised to its victims for what it had done and said “It is time to look at the future with hope, it is also time to act with responsibility and courage”. (1)

 

The move by ETA to disband was welcomed by most in Spanish society but it was unlike other countries where major armed groups have disbanded as in ETA’s case they had not agreed to specific peace or reconciliation terms with Spain nor had they agreed to any sort of prisoner amnesty. There was no equivalent in Spain to “The Good Friday Agreement” in Northern Ireland where compromises were made on both sides and an amnesty was agreed to all prisoners. ETA acted simply in good faith and assumed that what they were doing was the right thing for their struggle and the rest of their aims could be built on later.

 

Reconciliation is a tricky subject to approach in a country coming out the other end of an armed conflict. Generally a balance needs to be found where there is some sort of amnesty for the people who perpetrated violence whilst the victims also do need to feel some sense of justice – it's a tricky line to tow but it is generally accepted in global politics that both sides must end a cycle of violence for a nation to move on. ETA handed over their arms but Spain's policy towards them and their now ex-members did not change drastically.

The following year, in 2019, ETA leader Josu Ternera was arrested in France in a joint operation with French and Spanish police. He had been accused and tried on the basis that he was involved in a 1987 attack that killed 11 people. In September 2021 he was acquitted and released from prison due to an appeal which showed that there was very little evidence that he was actually involved in this. (10)

EH Bildu and the 2023 Spanish General Election

Euskal Herria Bildu, or EH Bildu, were founded in 2011 and have acted as ETA's political voice in the years following the ceasefire. They are a political party who have had their ETA links held against them. The 2023 Spanish general elections reopened a lot of wounds and showed how prevalent ETA still is in mainline Spanish discourse even 13 years after their ceasefire and 6 years after disbanding. EH Bildu ran 44 convicted ETA members for election with 7 of them having been convicted of murder. This sparked outrage across Spain prompting calls from many for EH Bildu to be banned as a political party. (2)

 

Isadel Diaz Ayuso from Spain's ‘People's Party’, a conservative christian party, called for EH Bildu to be completely banned from Spanish politics and claimed that “ETA is still alive” in the form of EH Bildu. There is no legal basis in Spain for EH Bildu to be banned due to the fact that it is legal in Spain to have a party whose aims (in this case - Basque separatism) goes against Spain's constitution, so long as they use legal means to achieve their aims. The People's Party have been working with victims of ETA violence to try and ban former ETA members from being allowed to run in elections. (3)

 

The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, even stepped in, making his position clear that he was angered by EH Bildu but could not legally ban them. “There are things that may be legal, but not decent.” (3) This is an interesting contrast, again, to the peace process in a country like Northern Ireland where convicted terrorists on both sides of the conflict can now run freely for parliament and it is not seen as controversial.

The whole situation deteriorated rapidly; the 7 candidates convicted of murder decided to withdraw from the elections but they did it too late to actually get their names removed from the ballots so instead they just had to promise not to take their seats if elected. ETA is still seen as a boogeyman and something very prevalent in Spanish political discourse. In 2022, EH Bildu supported Pedro Sanchez' budget bill and it led to Macarena Puentes, of the Popular Party, saying that this meant the entire budget had been “stained with the blood of ETA.” (2)

The Prisoners

One of the biggest talking points in the post-conflict years is the situation behind prisoners. Many Basque separatists believe that ETA prisoners are treated too harshly whereas ETA victims have come out and said they don't think they are treated harshly enough – it's a situation that really doesn't lend itself to an open and fair dialogue between both sides.

 

Since the 1980s, the Spanish government has had a policy of keeping ETA prisoners in prisons as far away from the Basque region as possible and to also completely separate them from each other. Tactically, this move is somewhat rational, as many militant groups around the world are given their own prison wings that they often control. This has led to prisons often being a place where militants are further trained and radicalised. ETA prisoners are not regarded as political prisoners in Spain so are not afforded some of the same privileges many militants receive in other countries. (4)

 

The issue of prisoners being kept far away from the Basque Country is the major one that overshadows modern ETA discourse. Many feel that this is a vindictive way of punishing the families of prisoners who often cannot travel to visit their loved-ones due to the distance. Etxerat is an organisation who have worked to campaign against this policy. “It's not a perk, it's a right” to be sent to a prison near your homeland, according to their spokesman Urtzi Errazkin.

 

The policy of prisoners being kept in the far south of Spain has been changing. In 2022 the policy was changed and in the last two years there has been slow progress to transfer ETA prisoners to prisons nearer to their homes. (5) Etxerat sees these transfers as a stepping stone to ultimately gaining an amnesty for all ETA prisoners stating that “We will keep working to let them go free. We haven’t brought them back here to keep them imprisoned”. (5)

In January 2024, over 20,000 people filled the streets of Bilbao to protest for the rights and release of ETA prisoners. Currently 134 ex-ETA members are in Spanish prisons, eight are in French prisons and 20 are exiled abroad. Almost half of those in prison have not been jailed for violent crimes. (4)

The huge numbers that demonstrated in Bilbao shows that there is widespread support for the prisoners amongst the Basque population. Indeed, in 2021 ETA prisoners had to release a statement in which they asked the Basque public to stop organising public festivals and gatherings to celebrate each time an ETA prisoner was released. (4)

 

A type of homecoming celebration, locally known as “ongi etorri” is held each time an ETA prisoner is released in their home village or city. These include speeches, concerts and public dances to celebrate the person's release. Victims organisations and even actual ETA prisoners have said that these celebrations are insensitive to their victims and that they cause divisiveness which ultimately can damage their movement. The reality is that many ETA members are seen as heroes in their communities.

The EPPK ETA prisoners organisation has called for these celebrations to be done in private spaces and more discreetly from now on, so as not to cause any upset. (7) The protesters in Bilbao also accused Spain of mistreating ETA prisoners and called for “laws of exception” to be ended. (4)

 

Conditions have improved for ETA prisoners in recent years as a result of Spain's willingness to talk since ETA disbanded. Between 1977 and 2002 there were over 5000 accusations of torture and mistreatment against ETA prisoners by Spanish prison guards and police. These accusations were very hard to prove since the Spanish state refused to investigate most of the claims. (24) ETA has claimed common tactics used by Spanish police were routine beatings, waterboarding and sensory deprivation. The Spanish police have always denied this and claims that these accusations are fabrications used as part of a propaganda tactic by ETA. (6)

 

The situation is complex as the absence of a thorough investigation makes it challenging to establish definitive evidence of systematic torture. Additionally, prisons are private environments where activities unfold away from the public view. The Spanish police have faced global criticism for perceived shortcomings in adhering to their own laws, notably concerning their treatment of Catalan independence protestors, who are frequently subjected to forceful measures by the police. (27)

The truth about the torture that occurred likely falls somewhere in the middle of Spain's and ETA's claims. Human rights groups have criticised Spain for refusing to investigate torture allegations. No officer in Spain has been convicted of torturing ETA members but in 2006 four Spanish officers were jailed for a high profile case in which they kidnapped two ETA members, took them into a forest and brutally beat them – they were acquitted a year later. (24)

 

Iñaki Rekarte, a former ETA prisoner said in an interview “as soon as i was arrested they started to beat me, but that was nothing compared to what happened later. They burst my eardrum with the first punch. They put a bag over my head. I fainted several times, because I couldn’t breathe. You really suffer when they put a bag on your head. You don’t have oxygen. You try to breathe, but you can’t. You faint. They reanimate you – and you faint again. They reanimate you again – and you faint again.” (9)

 

Amnesty International released a report in 1993 in which they detailed their concerns that torture was very prevalent amongst the Spanish police and not exclusively just in The Basque conflict. (22) In 2018 Manuel Pastran, a former Spanish police officer, admitted to being involved in the systematic torture of ETA prisoners. “The war against ETA was harsh, bloody and many times dirty. Somebody had to do it.” He then also claimed that “As soon as you touched them they would sing.” (23)

However, the issue of torture and mistreatment seems to have died down since ETA disbanded and the conflict is no longer as heated as it was. The main concern now for prisoners rights groups such as Etxerat being returning prisoners to the Basque Country. The return of these prisoners has been welcomed by most but the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT) have said that the Spanish government is “siding with the terrorists and not the victims.”  EH Bildus leader, Arnaldo Otegi, welcomed the decision and said “a cycle of prison politics has been closed....the joy must be contained because we cannot forget so much pain and suffering”. (9)

Conclusion

Spain has attracted international attention for contentious reasons in recent years. In 2017, an unauthorised referendum seeking Catalan independence faced forceful suppression. Rather than simply disregarding the referendum or engaging with demands democratically, the Spanish state deployed the police to quell Catalan nationalists. The international community was surprised as Spanish law enforcement was actively deployed to cities such as Barcelona, and forcefully engaged with Catalan separatists who orchestrated the referendum. (28) Many Catalan independence leaders were arrested and given prison sentences.

The Spanish state was in the news again in 2021 when rapper Pablo Hasel was arrested for criticising the King and “glorifying terrorism” in his lyrics. Again the Spanish government received huge criticism for these harsh acts. (21) In another high-profile case in the Basque Country, a bar fight between off duty policemen and locals who claimed the Spanish police were not welcome in their town, this drunken brawl resulted in eight Basque men being brought to court on terrorism charges.(30) Human rights groups voiced concerns over these charges. (30)

 

In the Basque Country, any public support of ETA is still illegal. People have been brought to trial and prosecuted by Spanish Police for shouting ETA slogans in public and ETA flags and symbols are banned. (29)  In 2023, the OMCT, who act globally to try and end torture said in a report that they had “serious concerns” about the behaviour of Spanish police and the impunity they face. (25) Spain ranks 24th in the world freedom index, which is a relatively high place globally but still remains relatively low when compared to other EU countries. (15)

 

The feelings left behind by ETA and their fight for independence run deep in Spain and still affect its politics today. It seems to be difficult to move on from a conflict fully when one side of it feels that the perpetrators completely evaded all justice and the other side thinks they are being unfairly and too harshly punished. It is a very polarising issue. The Basque country today has more autonomy than any other region in Spain – it has its own parliament, police force, school system and collects its own taxes – but it does not have full independence. The Spanish government and ETA remain dedicated to peace, yet the absence of a formal peace process raises questions about whether both sides are subject to varying expectations regarding the true essence of reconciliation.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

  1. 2021. “Wounds persist in Spain, ten years after ETA lays down arms” France24. https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20211020-wounds-persist-in-spain-ten-years-after-eta-lays-down-arms

  2. 2023. Jones, Sam “Rows over Eta and racism loom large as Spain holds local elections” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/27/spain-holds-local-elections-rows-eta-racism-loom-large

  3. 2023. Llach, Laura. “Spanish elections re-open deep wounds, as ETA terrorists run for political office” Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2023/05/19/spanish-elections-re-open-deep-wounds-as-eta-terrorists-run-for-political-office

  4. 2024. Mcmurtry, Alyssa. “Tens of thousands fill streets of Bilbao, protesting for rights of ETA prisoners in Spain”  AA https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/tens-of-thousands-fill-streets-of-bilbao-protesting-for-rights-of-eta-prisoners-in-spain/3108321

  5. 2022. Morel, Sandrine. “Spain moves Basque prisoners closer to their families” Le Monde. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2022/09/06/spain-moves-basque-prisoners-closer-to-their-families_5995971_4.html

  6. 2017. Mitxelena, Lander Arbeleitz. “What is going on with the fight for Basque prisoners' rights?” Argia. https://www.argia.eus/albistea/what-is-going-on-in-the-fight-for-basque-prisoners-rights

  7. 2021. Hedgecoe, Guy. “Eta prisoners vow to end divisive Basque homecoming ceremonies” Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/eta-prisoners-vow-to-end-divisive-basque-homecoming-ceremonies-1.4743092

  8. 2020. “Fate of ETA prisoners a minefield for Spain's government” France24. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20201113-fate-of-eta-prisoners-a-minefield-for-spain-s-government

  9. 2019. “What now for ETA's prisoners?” Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2014/02/11/what-now-for-eta-s-prisoners

  10. 2019. “Kingpin of Basque separatist group ETA arrested in France” France24 https://www.france24.com/en/20190516-basque-separatist-group-eta-kingpin-josu-ternera-arrested-france

  11. 2001. Woodworth, Paddy. “Why Do They Kill? The Basque Conflict in Spain” Duke University Press.

  12. 2023. Ramajo, Malena. “Marlaska orders rest of 'dispersed' ETA prisoners to be transferred to Basque prisons” El Nacional. https://www.elnacional.cat/en/politics/marlaska-dispersed-eta-prisoners-basque-prisons_995625_102.html

  13. 1990. Zulaiki, Joseba and Douglass, A. William. “On the Interpretation of Terrorist Violence: ETA and the Basque Political Process” Cambridge University Press.

  14. 2023. Grau, Elena. “Peace in the Basque Country: an unstoppable process” International Catalan Institute for Peace. https://www.icip.cat/perlapau/en/article/peace-in-the-basque-country-an-unstoppable-process/

  15. https://freedomhouse.org/country/spain/freedom-world/2023 Freedomhouse.org

  16. 2023. Montgomery, Bill. “Nationalism and Independence: Could the Basque Survive Economically Without Madrid?” SC Johnson College of Business. https://business.cornell.edu/hub/2023/07/06/nationalism-independence-could-basque-survive-economically-without-madrid/

  17. 2021. Ludtke, Florian. “Lessons learnt from the Basque peace process” Berghof Foundation. https://berghof-foundation.org/news/lessons-learnt-from-the-basque-peace-process#:~:text=Although%20it%20has%20been%20described,party%20dialogue%20within%20the%20Basque

  18. Etxerat offical website. https://www.etxerat.eus/eu/azala

  19. 2021. Ferrero, Isa. “The Spanish Left vs. the rise of authoritarianism” IPS Journal. https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/future-of-social-democracy/the-spanish-left-vs-rising-authoritarianism-5254/

  20. 2017. “What is Eta?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-11183574

  21. 2021. Jones, Sam. “Angry protests as Spanish riot police arrest rapper at centre of free-speech debate” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/16/spanish-police-storm-university-in-lleida-and-arrest-fugitive-rapper-pablo-hasel

  22. 1993. “Spain - Torture and Ill-treatment. A Summary of Amnestys Concerns” https://www.amnesty.org/es/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/eur410011993en.pdf

  23. 2018. Dieterich, Heinz and Reza, Hashim. “Former Spanish Civil Guard Admits to Torturing ETA Members” Telesur. https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Former-Spanish-Civil-Guard-Admits-Torture-on-ETA-Members-20180702-0013.html

  24. 2012. “The torturous process of proving ETA mistreatment” El Pais. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2012/10/10/inenglish/1349870156_691448.html#

  25. 2023. “Spain: Excessive use of force by police officers” OMCT https://www.omct.org/en/resources/news/spain-excessive-use-of-force-by-police-officers

  26. 2022. “Spain: reversing the long lasting impunity for torture” OMCT. https://www.omct.org/en/resources/blog/spain-reversing-the-long-lasting-impunity-for-torture

  27. 2020. “Police brutality in Spain not being investigated” European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2020-005750_EN.html

  28. 2019. McGee, William “The brutal crackdown in Catalonia” Spiked. https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/10/31/the-brutal-crackdown-in-catalonia/

  29. 2017. “A defendant is on trial for shouting at the Ertzaintza "Gora ETA militarra"” La Vanguardia. https://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20170604/423186247642/a-juicio-un-acusado-por-gritar-a-la-ertzaintza-gora-eta-militarra.html

  30. 2018. Davies, Pascale. “Basque bar fight trial tests 10 years of fragile peace in the region” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/14/basque-country-bar-fight-high-court-ruling-terror-related

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