Socialists defend dirty war minister

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BUSLOADS OF Spanish Socialists converged on a prison in Guadalajara near Madrid yesterday to show solidarity with their former Minister of the Interior, as he begins a 10-year jail term for conducting a dirty war against Basque terrorists.

The Socialist leaders, far from distancing themselves from Jose Barrionuevo, who was convicted by the Supreme Court for organising and funding illegal armed actions, have leapt to his defence, angering other parties in the process, and baffling many Spaniards.

Spain's socialist former prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, has emerged as the principal champion of Mr Barrionuevo and his former deputy, Rafael Vera, who has been sent to prison with him. Mr Gonzalez has resumed his old profession as a lawyer to defend the two men and appeal against the Supreme Court ruling. The former prime minister believes that the judges were nobbled by the ruling right-of-centre Popular Party and the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and that they were determined to put a socialist minister away.

The socialists issued a strong statement on Wednesday stating their continuing "affection" for the two men and their "appreciation" of their services to peace. The two men were "unjustly condemned", the statement said.

The ruling conservatives are taking a hands-off stance, saying justice must take its course. Mr Barrionuevo and Mr Vera, meanwhile, continue to protest their innocence, insisting that their fight against Eta terrorists in the 1980s, in the early years of Mr Gonzalez's government, never resorted to illegal methods. Some 25 people were killed by undercover hit squads masterminded from the Interior Ministry.

The recently elected socialist leader, Jose Borrell, has sought in vain to keep his party at arm's length from the imbroglio. But he has been outflanked by a party machine which is still in the grip of Mr Gonzalez and his parliamentary spokesman, Joaquin Almunia.

Mr Borrell has appealed to the party to avoid being bogged down in the past, and has called on the left to refresh its image in order to ensure victory in elections due within two years.

But many within the party believe that Mr Gonzalez's actions are preventing such a renewal. They suspect that Mr Gonzalez would rather see the party he once led languish in opposition rather than win under the leadership of Mr Borrell, whose candidacy he did not support.

The socialists say they did not invent the "dirty war" against Basque terrorists, which claimed many victims before they came to power, and they want the government to pardon Barrionuevo.