Basque leader is jailed for praising former head of Eta

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The Independent Online

Arnaldo Otegi, the radical Basque politician and a key figure in the incipient peace process, has been jailed for 15 months for glorifying terrorism.

Spain's High Court also banned Otegi, one of the most prominent and outspoken leaders of Basque nationalism, from standing for political office or voting for seven years at yesterday's hearing. Otegi, 47, the leader of the outlawed pro-separatist Batasuna party, is thought to have played a decisive role in persuading Eta armed separatists to declare a permanent ceasefire last month.

He had long been in discreet contact with members of the ruling Socialist party to prepare for the ceasefire, and is considered Spain's nearest equivalent to Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, in his importance to the Basque peace process.

While Basque Socialists consider him a key interlocutor, Otegi is one of the few non-combatant radical Basques with clout among Eta's military hotheads - because of his record as a former Eta hitman. He is likely to be a vital participant in future peace talks.

"I think the bases for the abandonment of violence are firm and will not be affected by these kind of events," the Socialist parliamentary spokesman, Ramon Jauregui, said.

Otegi was sentenced for praising the Eta leader Jose Miguel Benaran Ordenana, known as Argala, at a memorial service in 2003. He denied at his trial this month his homage amounted to the glorification of terrorism or Eta. "My message was only an act of remembrance for a person murdered 25 years ago for political reasons," he had said.

Argala was suspected of masterminding the assassination in 1973 of Franco's right-hand man, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, whose death in an explosion shook the dictatorship's foundations. Argala was amnestied in 1977 and murdered a year later, supposedly by extremists seeking vengeance for Blanco's death.

Otegi is on bail in connection with a trial to establish Batasuna's links with Eta. He was sentenced to a year in jail in November for insulting the king, whom he accused of being "responsible for torturers", but the term was waived as "a first offence". He can appeal to the Supreme Court, which has the last word on whether he should go to jail for the latest offence.

Before the court ruling yesterday, Otegi sought permission to travel to Dublin to take part in Sinn Fein events, invited by Gerry Adams. Mr Adams is said to have advised him on how to orchestrate Eta's transition from armed action to peace talks, and has praised him publicly.

* Bob Dylan will perform a free concert for peace in the Basque resort of San Sebastian on 11 July, to celebrate the new climate of peace following Eta's ceasefire, the organisers said.

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