Terror attacks greet trial of Basque leaders

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The Independent Online
Spanish courts have put 23 Basque political leaders on trial over alleged support for terrorism. Elizabeth Nash in Madrid says the action may undermine the wave of public revulsion against the separatists' violent tactics.

The Supreme Court trial of 23 leaders of the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party opened yesterday in Madrid, amid seething tension in the Basque Country where a number of terrorist attacks took place at the weekend.

Yesterday afternoon in Bilbao, a police officer was shot in the shoulder while guarding the new Guggenheim Museum which opens on Saturday.

The entire leadership of the HB party, which won 12 per cent of Basque votes in general elections in March last year, is charged with "collaborating with an armed gang" by issuing an election video calling for the government to talk to Eta gunmen.

The trial was postponed from last Monday when HB's defence claimed unsuccessfully that one of the three judges was biased. Yesterday HB called for the trial to be suspended, or shifted to the Basque Country, because of "an atmosphere of pressure in favour of a conviction". The defence says HB's position in the campaign video - which showed masked, armed men urging their vision of "alternative democracy" - was already public knowledge.

The Interior Minister, Jaime Major Oreja, said in a newspaper interview: "I have the moral and political certainty that Eta is HB and HB is Eta." But he added: "I cannot say whether there is a judicial reason to apply a criminal action to HB."

The 23 each face eight years' jail, if found guilty. They are also accused of defending terrorism by publicly supported Eta's assassination in 1996 of two prominent legal figures. The killings sent a wave of revulsion throughout Spain, prefiguring the eruption on to the streets of millions this summer over the murder of the local politician Miguel Angel Blanco.

The conservative Basque nationalist leader, Xabier Arzalluz, whose party backs Jose Maria Aznar's government, condemned the trial as politically motivated. The persistent fusillade of terrorist attacks in the Basque Country continued at the weekend, when a car bomb on Saturday wounded four National Guardsmen in San Sebastian. On Sunday, two Basque policemen were attacked with petrol bombs and suffered burns after a pro-HB demonstration in Bilbao.

The 23, who are all free on bail, have requested that the Supreme Court to conduct morning-only sessions so they can return to their Basque homes each night. They complain that hotels around Madrid refuse them lodgings.