Pim, pam, pum. The Basques proclaim a bloody defiance

Violence and threats as separatists take to the streets after police enforce closure of the political wing of Eta

Pedro Gomez Damborenea,Elizabeth Nash
Friday 07 February 2014 04:08

It took Basque riot police nearly 90 minutes to smash their way into the Bilbao office of the banned separatist Batasuna party yesterday.

The apartment – overlooking a handsome fin de siècle square near the city hall – had an armour-plated door, which police carrying out Monday's court order to shut the party down for three years had to force.

Members of the party – seen as the political wing of Eta – who had spent the night barricaded inside were ejected, including eight activists who had chained themselves to the wrought-iron balcony overlooking the square.

As violence erupted on the streets outside they shouted "running dogs", "fascists", "this is just a beginning" and the menacing words "pim pam pum" (bang bang bang) as a death threat.

The violence was repeated in Victoria and San Sebastian, the Basque Country's other main cities yesterday, where the party's offices were sealed up in accordance with the court order made by the crusading Judge Baltasar Garzon.

The ruling coincides with the conservative government's move to outlaw Batasuna under a tough new law.

Politicians from both the government and the opposition see the twin offensive – political and judicial – as Spain's war on terrorism, a national crusade to crush Basque fundamentalist gunmen. It has been accompanied by a cloud of rhetoric reminiscent of President George Bush's war against al-Qa'ida.

"We will not give Batasuna a moment's respite," the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, warned. "Their institutional safe haven is finished." His words evoked Mr Bush's warning after 11 September: "We will hunt them down."

In Bilbao, Batasuna's leader Arnaldo Otegi defiantly addressed the crowd in the Basque language, accusing the region's ruling Basque Nationalist Party of being "Spaniards" – a deeply wounding insult to a party banned by the dictator General Francisco Franco and which aspires, if only verbally, to a Basque independence.

Batasuna says it will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against what it sees as a gross violation of human rights. It argues that the attempt to outlaw a party that wins 10 to 15 per cent of the Basque vote recalls the days of Franco.

In Madrid, where Basque aspirations for more autonomy receive little sympathy, most politicians say anything is valid against those who use the pistol and the bomb.

They justify their hardline by arguing that all their representatives in the region need protection by bodyguards day and night, that anyone standing for office has to face the reality that they become an Eta target. They say Batasuna has forfeited the right to operate by their actions.

The Basque interior minister, Jose Jon Imaz, warned as he reluctantly sent his regional policemen in to carry out the court order that the operation "takes us further from peace".

And this is the point. For all the rhetoric about crushing the gunmen and the right to live without fear, the wider question remains: what will work?

Basque politicians and churchmen say the ban will make things worse. Batasuna says it will exhaust the legal process in an attempt to restore its right to exist. But they also predict that activists prevented from electing their favourite party may now go underground and directly join Eta.

Batasuna's members have been bracing themselves for this day for months, if not years. But until it came they revealed no clear strategy on how they would deal with being outlawed. They have fought constant court battles to maintain a legal status for the last 23 years, and repeated attempts by Madrid to clip their wings.

Batasuna's team of lawyers tirelessly fight their corner, among them Jone Goirizelaia, from Bilbao, who travelled to Madrid last Friday in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Judge Garzon that his plan to suspend the party for three years was "disproportionate".

One recent afternoon, Ms Goirizelaia fielded urgent calls from her party colleagues on how to react to Judge Garzon's decision to freeze all the party's accounts and fine it millions of euros, which he said was the cost of damage caused by Batasuna-prompted street violence in recent months.

Ms Goirizelaia said: "Young people join Eta after having engaged in street violence, because the sentences handed down for such acts are so out of proportion to the offences."

Few seriously dispute that Batasuna is the mouthpiece of Eta and obeys its orders. The problem has been to prove it, or to establish that a ban is therefore justified. Batasuna constantly denies the claim.

But for four years, Judge Garzon has has trawled internal Batasuna documents, logged secret meetings, and unravelled Eta's complex international financial operations, which range from publishing houses in Central America to corner bars in towns throughout the Basque country.

Curious visitors to Bilbao and San Sebastian may have dropped by these lively bars, filled with earnest young men and women, adorned with posters glorifying Eta prisoners, where dead Eta "martyrs" are revered as folk heroes. And a collecting pot for contributions sits on the bar.

Judge Garzon says the taverns themselves, not just the money jars, are a milch cow for Eta, a vast prosperous enterprise that funds the purchase of explosives, guns, safe houses, and stipends for Eta militants, ex-prisoners and exiles.

In coming days these bars will be shut. Batasuna will be unable to meet in its own offices and will be unable to receive public funds available for political parties. Demonstrations and public meetings will be banned and its phones will be cut. All of this is the starter before the main course of the government's proposed ban, which must go to the Supreme Court for the final ruling, and which could take weeks or months to be implemented.

The new parties law widens the definition of terrorism to include justification of terrorist acts. Batasuna's failure to condemn Eta attacks is said to amount to such justification, and is grounds for a ban.

Many Basques, and also the more pragmatic Catalans, predict that more violence is inevitable. They are braced for another wave of Eta bombings, and a confrontation, not only between democrats and gunmen but also between Madrid and the Basque Country. That face-off, potentially even more destabilising, could threaten the constitutional definition of Spain. Madrid says, rightly, that Basques have more autonomy than any comparable region in Europe, that they are a prosperous developed part of Europe and that most Basques simply do not want the separate state that Eta demands.

But for Eta, and Batasuna, that is not enough. The impasse has dogged Spain since General Franco died in 1975. But the stakes are higher than ever.

Pedro Gomez Damborenea is a correspondent for 'El Pais'

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