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rights, freedoms and repression |
Friday March 15, 2013 17:06 by Cormac Mac Gall - None
A DISGRACE 0N A GRAND SCALE IN EUROPE
Over six hundred political prisoners, along with thousands of relatives and friends, are subjected to systematic abuse of human rights within the Spanish and French states.
Prisoner solidarity demonstration, Bilbao, January last year -- this year's was even bigger
There are currently 603 male and female prisoners recognised as Basque political prisoners by Etxerat (the word means “Homeward”, the organisation of prisoners’ relatives and friends (there are some other political prisoners who are not part of the collective). This would be an amazing number of political prisoners for any society but for a nation of less than three million people, it is astounding. It speaks of two things: the level of repression and the level of resistance.
This high number of prisoners ensures that there is hardly a Basque citizen who does not have personal knowledge of a political prisoner, whether the person be in a relationship with the prisoner, a family member, a neighbour, a workmate, a former co-student, close friend .... That, as well no doubt as the high politicisation of the Basque Country, is what ensures the huge demonstrations every January in Bilbao (over 110,000 this year).
In February, there were the following prisoners:
• 439 in 45 Spanish state jails
• 134 in French state jails
• 4 in jail in England
• one in the Six Counties, Ireland
• one in Scotland (now in French jail)
• one in Portugal
• one in Brazil
• one under house arrest in Rome
• 11 prisoners on parole due to serious or incurable illness (one, on parole confined to his house, died on March 14th)
• one in internal exile in France
The Basque prisoners are dispersed throughout 83 prisons. Of the 603 prisoners, 582 are in jails outside the Basque Country.
• 83 are between 1,000 and 1,100 km from the Basque Country
• 161 between 800 and 1,000km from the BC
• 136 between 600 and 800 km from the BC
• 88 are at 400 or more (but less than 600) from the BC
• One person in internal exile more than 900 km from the BC
• 8 prisoners in other countries
EXTENSION OF SENTENCES FOR BASQUE PRISONERS – THE “PAROT DOCTRINE”
In July 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strassbourg upheld the complaint of Basque political prisoner Ines del Rio that her human rights had been abused and instructed the Spanish state to set her free, to pay the expenses of the case and to pay her €30,000 in personal damages.
According to Spanish law, having been jailed in 1989, Ines del Rio was eligible for parole in 2008. However, in 2006, after a right-wing public opinion campaign, the Spanish Supreme Court decreed a change in the way sentences were to be calculated and in del Rio’s case, decided that she should be held indefinitely. The Strassbourg court held that no prisoner should have an indefinite sentence and furthermore that legislation could not be applied retroactively to the detriment of a prisoner, i.e. to a case where the alleged crime had occurred prior to the change in the law – a well-known principle of jurisprudence.
The new decree was nicknamed the “Parot Doctrine” as it had been first applied to ETA prisoner Henri Parot, jailed in 1987. Ninety-three prisoners have now had their sentences extended by the change in the Spanish penitentiary law of 2006; of these 22 have served the extra time and are now free but 71 are still in jail. Ramon Aldosoro was jailed in 1997 and given a release date for 27th October 2017; however, under the application of the decree, he will not be released until 25th March 2027. Raul Alonso was due for release in 2015; under the application of the new law he will not be released until 2021. Iňaki Gonzalo Casal was jailed in 1994 and was due for release in May this year but has been told that under the new law he will have his jail time extended – but they have yet to tell him until what date.
Within less than an hour of being informed of the Strassbourg verdict in the case of Ines del Rio, the Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez announced that the Spanish state would appeal the decision to the Supreme Tribunal of the Court and that meanwhile, del Rio would remain in jail. According to the legal advice of Etxerat, the organisation of friends and relatives of the Basque prisoners, the Supreme Tribunal will consist of 17 judges (including the President of the Court and those who ruled in her favour in July) and will examine the case again from the beginning, accepting any new submissions made by the Spanish state or by del Rio’s legal team.
DUBLIN BASQUE SOLIDARITY COMMITTEE TO HOLD PRISONER SOLIDARITY PICKET
It is to support the cases of Ines del Rio and of the others subjected to the new decree and also in solidarity with all Basque political prisoners that the Dublin Irish Basque Solidarity Committee has called a picket for 2pm this coming Saturday 16th in front of the European Union Parliament’s building in Dawson Street.
The DIBSC has been active in Dublin since 2006 and has just concluded its contribution to the annual International Solidarity with the Basque Country Week, putting a Basque band on in Sweeney’s pub in Dame Street and holding two public talks elsewhere, one on the crimes of Franquism in the Basque Country and another on the campaign for the Basque language there.
“What party affiliation does the DIBSC have and which group or movement does it support in the Basque Country?” I asked a spokesperson for the Basque Solidarity Committee in Dublin. She pointed me towards their constitution, which declares it to be a broad organisation under the control of no party or organisation, whether in Ireland or in the Basque Country. “Of course, we have a basic political position,” she said, “which is freedom for the Basque country. By that, we mean the freedom to decide, without repression or menace, whether to continue their current situation, to join a federation or to become an independent nation. It would seem that the majority wish in Basque society is for independence but the choice is theirs. We have in the course of our work developed links with a number of organisations in the Basque Country but we are autonomous.”
The spokesperson continued: “Our Committee has always supported the Basque political prisoners and has organised pickets in Dublin a number of times over the years. And just two months ago,” she continued, “we raised money by a social event in Dublin and sent it to the Etxerat organisation to help the relatives. The Spanish and French governments want to crush the spirit of the prisoners and are also using them as hostages for the Basque liberation movement. The existence of so many Basque political prisoners is a symptom of a deep political problem. Repression will not solve it – that was tried by the old Spanish monarchy and by Franco’s dictatorship and by every Spanish government since. The treatment of the political prisoners contravenes basic human and political rights and should be considered an abomination in Europe.”
The Abertzale Left (formerly represented by the political party Batasuna, banned in the Spanish state but not in the French) is now represented by a new party, Sortu, which was permitted by the Spanish state only after its ban was overturned by an appeal to the Spanish Constitutional Court. The party has declared its wish to settle the political problem through a political process and has called on the Spanish and French states to engage in that process. This call has been ignored by the French state, while the Spanish continue to engage in repression.
In most such conflicts elsewhere, the release of political prisoners has formed part of the settlement. Much of the Spanish state and society however is run by the children and grandchildren of Franco’s generals, politicians, businessmen, judges, police and army chiefs, as was pointed out by the speaker from the Basque organisation Ahaztuak (“The Forgotten”) in Dublin less than two weeks ago. Even the social democrats of the PSOE, who were repressed under Franco, were deeply infected upon coming to power: their Minister of the Interior was jailed for his part in running the anti-Basque assassination squads of GAL in the 1980s and it was rumoured that the chain of command went right up to Felipe Gonzalez, head of the party at the time and Prime Minister from 1982 to 1996, although he was never charged.
The fascist hierarchy were never even partly cleaned out in the Spanish state as they were elsewhere in Europe after the 2nd World War and every now and again Spanish Army generals make not-so-veiled threats of a repeat of the coup that brought Franco to power. Meanwhile the struggle for self-determination goes on in Catalunya and in the Basque Country with majority support among their populations and, in the Basque Country, the suffering of the relatives of the prisoners continues, while most of the prisoners suffer alone or in small groups dispersed throughout the French and Spanish states.
MEDICAL NEGLECT AND REFUSAL TO RELEASE SICK PRISONERS
Thirteen seriously-ill prisoners are listed by Etxerat as being held in prison and who should be released, not just according to humanitarian principle but by Spanish law which holds that seriously and terminally-ill prisoners should be released on parole to receive medical care and the care of their families. The diagnoses of these thirteen range from cancer to schizophrenia.
Iosu Uribetxeberria is one of a number who have been released on parole but only after he went on hunger strike five months after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was first taken to hospital as an emergency case, where he was put in a locked ward with bars on the window and police on 24-hour guard, ocassionally insulting or threatening him and his visitors. There he went on hunger strike and the support campaign for him outside gathered force (there was a solidarity picket in Dublin too, organised by the DIBSC). When the Director of prisons ordered his release on parole, the State Prosecutor objected and appealed the decision but finally Iosu was released to his family and to medical care of his choosing. He is not permitted to leave his home area, however.
In Villenas prison, the female prisoners await the result of a formal complaint on being refused permission to be visited and examined by a gynaecologist of their choosing.
As this article was nearing conclusion, the tragic death occurred of Angel Figueroa in his native Algorta, Getxo (not far from Bilbao). Angel had been jailed in 1994 and his epilepsy, of which previously he had suffered only extremely mild episodes, quickly worsened and he began to collapse without warning, losing consciousness. He remained in jail and was taken to hospital to receive emergency treatment in 2005 after being found unconscious on the floor. In 2006 he underwent an operation but during the following year suffered 20 serious attacks, during two of which he suffered injury but was only finally released on parole in 2007. The week before his release he was transferred to yet another prison which brought on another attack. Finally on parole, he was not permitted to leave his house, where he was found dead on 14th March – he was in his early fifties.
In an interview which his mother, Mari Carmen Fernandez, gave a newspaper in 1997, when she was campaiging for him to be granted parole, she said that had he not been a political prisoner, he would long previously have been released. “There are laws”, she said, “but there is no justice.” She compared his case with that of the General Rodriquez Galindo of the Guardia Civil, who was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Basque activists Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala as part of the state-sponsored terrorism of GAL, who served barely four years before release, alleging health problems.
Their family also experienced one of the hazards faced by relatives travelling to visit prisoners: in 1997 Mari Carmen’s mother, travelling with her daughter, Angel’s grandmother, while on their way to visit their son and grandson, died as a result of a traffic accident impact on the vehicle in which they were travelling.
As a matter of course, social prisoners in the Spanish and French jails are eligible for parole after they have completed a certain number of years. As a matter of course, Basque political prisoners are refused parole. However, in January, the French Tribunal with responsibility in that area granted parole to Basque political prisoner Argi Perurena (one of two spokespersons for the prisoners in French jails), who had already served 13 years. She had to agree to wear an electronic bracelet, have a job and maintain a fixed abode within the French state. However she remains in jail because the French state Prosecutor appealed the Tribunal’s decision. A verdict is expected this month.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT AND ISOLATION
Solitary confinement is a measure which is supposed to be used only in certain cases and for limited time periods but, according to Etxerat, it is routinely used to punish Basque political prisoners for being what they are and for not renouncing their convictions. The dispersal of prisoners has facilitated isolation from their comrades but as the numbers grew it became difficult, especially in the Spanish state, to ensure that no prison held more than one Basque political prisoner. However, even when there are Basque prisoners in the same jail, they are frequently placed in different wings or blocks so that they may never see one another.
In addition, in February there were six Basque prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, two in the Spanish state and four in the French. In the latter, one of the prisoners, Ibai Sueskun, has been maintaining a weekly one-day hunger strike in protest at his treatment in Tarascon prison.
HARRASSMENT OF PRISONERS
There are so many ways in which those who control the prisons can harrass prisoners and most of those measures are employed against Basque political prisoners, according to Etxerat.
Two prisoners in a relationship, Marta Igarritz and Karmelo Lauzirika, who are in different Spanish prisons, have had permission to communicate with each other withdrawn by the authorities. In Seville II prison, since December, a new regulation prohibits prisoners from receiving more than two publications in the monthly parcels, whether they be books, newspapers or magazines. In Algericas prison, after a public complaint about the prison’s ban on Christmas cards in Euskera (Basque language), the prisoners have been informed that letters written in Spanish will also be delayed by fourteen days.
In a number of prisons, the five-minute phone calls have been cut short before the alloted time.
Etxerat alleges that violent and unnecessary cell searches (allegedly for contraband) are frequently carried out against Basque and in February named the prisons of Huelva, Cordoba, Dueňas and Foncalent. In Puerto III prison, Aitor Cotano was stripped and searched after a face-to-face visit. A prison officer also ordered him to do pushups although he is on crutches and, when he refused, he was taken to solitary confinement. That afternoon when his partner came to visit him, she was told, without any explanation whatsoever, that she could not visit him. After much effort and demands to see the person in charge, she was told that Aitor had not obeyed instructions and was therefore in solitary. According to www.distance-calculator.co.uk/world-distances, the distance from the Basque Country (taking the city of Donosti/San Sebastian as a middle point), is 857 miles or 1,378 km as the crow flies but going by car at an average speed of 96 Kmh would take over 14 hours. And of course the same back again – and all for an aborted visit.
PUNISHMENT AND HARRASSMENT OF RELATIVES OF BASQUE POLITICAL PRISONERS
STRESS AND DANGER
The dispersal of prisoners brings huge burdens on friends, relatives and partners who are, even by Spanish and French law, guilty of no crime whatsoever. Every weekend there is a mini exodus from the Basque Country of prisoners’ relatives southward to Spanish jails and northwards to French ones. Each visitor requires approval to be on a visiting list and each visit prior permission for a specific date for nominated persons. Each visit also entails arrangements and financing in terms of travel, often overnight accommodation, food, taking turns driving if going by car or van, arrangements for childcare, time off work for some and so on.
Considering the long distances often travelled and the stresses involved, it is hardly surprising that prisoners’ visitors suffer traffic accidents from time and occasionally these are fatal. Three friends of a Basque prisoner were lucky to walk away relatively unhurt from a crash due to ice and hailstones as they travelled to Burgos jail on February 1st. Of course, they did not make their visit and had to return home by taxi, due to the damage to their car.
CANCELLATION OF VISITS
One can try to imagine the hurt to putative visitors when they are prevented from visiting the prisoner whom they have travelled distances to see and for whom they have obtained permission and a date. According to Etxerat this happens all too frequently and, apart from the case of Aitor whose visit was terminated for refusing to do pushups (see earlier), they quoted three such cases in February. In Muret Seysses French prison, visitors of Juan Carlos Estevez were told that he was no longer in the prison. They had to return home (the prison is 450 km from the Basque Country) and later learned that he had been there all along.
This was not the case with the relatives of Julen Mujika, who travelled 900 km to see him in the French jail of Villefranche-sur-Saone. They were told he wasn’t there any longer – which was true, as he’d been transferred to Muret Seysses without his scheduled visitors being informed in advance.
Aingeru Cardaňo was transferred from Soto del Real prison in the Spanish state to another jail, Ocaňa; the transfer took three days during which he was unable to communicate with his family. The day that he arrived in Ocaňa, he had an open visit (face-to-face) scheduled in his previous jail of Soto. His visitors travelled 500 km there in vain and the same distance back again.
In a similar move but this time from the Soto del Real jail to Mansilla, Leon, Olga Comes also lost a visit and her relatives made the round trip of approximately 900 km in vain.
HARRASSMENT OF RELATIVES
If the experience of relatives of Irish political prisoners convicted of acts of “terrorism” and jailed in Britain between the 1970s and 1990s should serve as an indication, relatives of Basque political prisoners on their travels to jails must endure some hostility from Spaniards. Given the high level of fascist survival within the Spanish state, their reception is likely to be worse than that endured by Irish relatives visiting prisoners in Britain.
But state forces take a hand too, according to Etxerat. In Villena prison, relatives were subjected to personal searches, including children; women were obliged to remove their brasieres and also had their breasts probed.
In February, during the early hours of a morning in the third weekend of the month, Spanish police burst into the hotel accommodation occupied by three relatives, one of them 11 years old, who had travelled a long distance to visit a female prisoner. Five of the police were uniformed Policía Nacional and five were in plain-clothes and demanded to check the identities of the hotel room occupants.
Earlier, on the 3rd of February, the Ertzaintza (police of the Basque Autonomous Government) detained the van of relatives returning from Foncalet prison and held them up for an hour.
On the 15th of the same month, at an apparently routine checkpoint operated by the Guardia Civil (another Spanish state-wide police force but militarised), relatives were detained for hours when the police learned that they were on their way to meet a relatives’ bus that was going to prisons in Andalucia (the far south of the Spanish state). According to the relatives, not a single other vehicle was stopped by the police during the entire time that they were held up there.
In conclusion, it does seem incredible sometimes that this systematic, widspread and heavy abuse of human and civil rights by two large EU member states is taking place not only in Europe but at a distance of a mere couple of hours’ flight from Dublin.
[I acknowledge the assistance of Dublin Baque Solidarity Committee in granting me an interview and also in pointing me towards the Etxerat organisation and their comprehensive February monthly report. which I read in the Spanish-language version and from which I drew most statistics and incidents. The interview with Angel Figueroa's mother, published in the bilingual Basque pro-independence Left newspaper GARA, was forwarded to me by a Basque resident of Algorta].
Iosu Uribetxeberria, Basque prisoner with terminal cancer who was only released on parole after a campaign including his hunger strike
Angel Figueroa, Basque political prisoner with serious illness, died on March 14th