Spain’s “war on terror” rounds on Basque moderates

Spain has escalated its campaign against Basque separatists by outlawing Batasuna, the political wing of terrorist group ETA. Billed as a new phase in Madrid’s “war on terror”, human rights groups warn the real purpose of the legislation is to muzzle Basque moderates and smother a political solution to Western Europe’s bloodiest remaining conflict.

After September 11, when Spain’s right-wing Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar likened the US “war on terror” to his own struggle against Basque radicals, Batasuna derisively retorted: “saying he (Aznar) has the same problem in Spain is a bit like taking a missile to swipe at a fly.” The new legislation — approved by the Senate on 25 June — appears to have done just that.

A notorious clause states that “active or tacit support of terrorism is a legitimate reason to dissolve a party,” raising the spectre of guilt by association.

“The term ‘tacit support’ is deliberately broad and can be used against any group which deviates from Aznar’s line on the Basque issue, ” regional analyst William Douglass said. “This could include trade unions with links to Batasuna, or moderate parties who reject terrorism such as PNV and Eusko Kartasuna,” he added.

Spain’s draconian penal code — which includes detention without charge for up to four years – — has already drawn much criticism for undermining freedom of expression and association. Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes the new measures effectively give Aznar a free hand.

“The European Court of Human Rights has taken a hands-off approach to anti-terror measures by granting states a ‘margin of appreciation’ of what constitutes a threat to national security. This loophole, when combined with Madrid’s opportunism, spells bad news for political dissent in Spain,” HRW senior researcher Julia Hall said.

Civil rights groups have good reason to be worried. The anti-terror law comes amid a crackdown on organisations deemed to be supportive of “terrorism.” According to Gestoras Pro Amnistia, a prisoners support group, this year has seen 70 cases of torture in police custody, the criminalisation of the youth organisation Haika, the closure of the Ekin radio station and newspaper — Ekin and Haika promoted “separatism” — and direct attacks on the Basque language publishing sector.

The crackdown could well be the harbinger of a wider campaign to isolate PNV and Eusko Kartasuna — the two main moderate Basque parties who seek a referendum on independence but repudiate ETA — in favour of a military solution to the Basque issue.

“While it’s unlikely that PNV and EK will be targeted imminently, they must be very afraid as the legislation clearly sends out the message they could be next’,” William Douglass said.

Robert Evans, vice-chair of the Committee on Citizens’ Rights and Freedoms at the European Parliament, agreed. “Some moderates will be scared off altogether, others might harden their position and join a revamped Batasuna under a new guise,” he opined. “With Basque political parties in disarray and public opinion polarised, it will be much easier for Aznar to pursue his campaign against ETA by police methods,” he added.

Since the anti-terror law came into force, Aznar has lost no time in stonewalling moves toward greater regional autonomy. On 15 July, he denounced the Basque parliament’s threats to push unilaterally for self-determination if Madrid failed to honour its obligations under the Guernica Statute. The 1979 autonomy accord has largely been fulfilled, but Madrid has back-pedalled on 37 measures covering agriculture, industry and finance.

“All nationalism leads to the same radical goals,” Aznar quipped in response to the threats — an obvious swipe at moderate nationalists.

Ironically, a handful of Spanish conservative politicians have recently broken the referendum taboo. They point to opinion polls showing that the majority of Basques would remain part of Spain. According to Juan Maria Atutxa, President of the Basque parliament, “it’s about having the power to decide rather than to actually exercise independence.”

Spain’s right-wing press has also suggested the unthinkable. “Perhaps it is time to consider a clear pronouncement from the Basque electorate on whether it wants to be independent from Spain, with all the consequences,” El Mundo editorialised. The paper argued that Basques recognise the disadvantages of segregation: “They would have to get in the queue to join the European Union behind Bulgaria.”

These dissenting voices may yet have their say, but for now the hardliners around Jose-Maria Aznar prefer to sound George W. Bush’s clarion call: “you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

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