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Clemency for ETA?

The proposed release of convicted killer Iosu Uribetxebarria on humanitarian grounds has revealed the raw anger that simmers on both sides of the Basque problem.


Iosu Uribetxebarria.

In danger of becoming a martyr: Iosu Uribetxebarria.

As early Basque elections loom, there is one issue that rages on despite efforts by the central government to let it lie: that of the controversial release of convicted ETA killer and kidnapper Iosu Uribetxebarria Bolinaga. On September 5, the Public Prosecutor’s Office exercised its right to appeal against a ruling in favour of his conditional release.

With a regional election scheduled for October 21, it is no surprise that even those in the Basque Partido Popular (PP) have been keen to nip the Uribetxebarria issue in the bud. Even Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hoped to silence those in his party – most prominently Basque MEP Jaime Mayor Oreja and Madrid premier Esperanza Aguirre – who strongly opposed the etarra‘s release, in a bid to forestall any appeal against the decision reached on Thursday August 30 by High Court Judge José Luis Castro.

Castro had ruled that Uribetxebarria, reported to be terminally ill with cancer of the liver and pulmonary and brain metastases, be granted conditional release based on “principles of humanity and the right” of all terminally ill prisoners to a dignified death. His ruling followed the government’s own recommendation that the prisoner be freed.

Clearly fearing that the uncomfortable issue could cloud forthcoming elections in the Basque Country and Galicia, it was a ruling that most of those in the PP were willing to accept.

However, the Prosecutor’s Office expressed scepticism over conclusions drawn by Castro that the etarra faces “imminent” death. It claims the judge hid an oncology report from them, which gave details of Uribetxebarria’s current condition. It also cites the prisoner’s failure to express regret for his crimes as a further reason to block his release.

Reports in El País suggest that several members of the Interior Ministry were surprised by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón’s reaction to the latest development. In an apparently ambiguous statement to press, the minister expressed his “support” for the Prosecutor’s Office. This has distanced Gallardón from the Interior Ministry, particularly as it goes against the party line to draw the issue to a close.

The appeal now means that Uribetxebarria’s release, should it go ahead, will be pushed back by at least several weeks. Even if those who are determined that he should die in prison are unsuccessful in their bid, they will have succeeded in making his final months less than plain-sailing.

Head over heart

On an emotional level it is easy to see why so many would object to Uribetxebarria’s release, particularly given the nature of his crimes. In addition to the murder of three civil guards, he was instrumental in several kidnappings, most famously that of prison officer José Antonio Ortega Lara.

Ortega was forced to live in squalid conditions for almost a year and a half between 1996 and 1997 in what was little more than an underground dug-out. As well as severe malnutrition, which caused him permanent damage, Ortega suffered post-traumatic stress and depression as a consequence of his experience.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many fail to see why one of those responsible for this should be entitled to a dignified death. When asked about the release of Uribetxebarria, the leader of the Basque PP, Antonio Basagoiti, answered that he “didn’t give a damn” about the situation facing terminally ill ETA prisoners: “If the izquierda abertzale [or Basque nationalist left] are so worried about prisoners, perhaps they should have thought of that before they killed 900 people, injured thousands and carried out dozens of kidnappings.”

This is a sentiment that will ring true with many an ordinary voter, however unfitting such rhetoric may be for a representative of the Basque parliament. But as so often in the Basque Country, issues that are essentially humanitarian become over-politicised.

For their part, the izquierda abertzale itself has held countless protests calling for the release of Uribetxebarria, fuelling the anger of many Spaniards.

Whether or not you support the former etarra‘s release on humanitarian grounds, it is hard to identify with the cause when those arguing his case so often come across as indignant, with little or no acknowledgement of the enormity of his crimes, or those of his fellow prisoners. As a prime example, his supporters recently pronounced that the Spanish courts have “condemned Uribetxebarria to death row”.

If Iosu Uribetxebarria is to be released on humanitarian – and not political – grounds, the truth of the man’s crimes should also be acknowledged as such. He is not Pinochet, who murdered people in an abuse of power. Nor, surely, were his crimes, as vile as they were, on a par with that of the author of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi. Both men were controversially released owing to supposed illness. Nor is Uribetxebarria Franco, for whose crimes there has been no apology.

But he is not a hero either, and nor should he be treated as such. His release should not be lamented, but neither should it be celebrated. Those who would prevent his release are clearly reluctant to let Uribetxebarria go without a fight. Sadly, it is precisely this kind of action that will turn him into a martyr for many.

Should Iosu Uribetxebarria’s release go ahead, let us hope, as do most of those in both the PP and the Socialist Party, that it is an end to the matter. Assuming all diagnoses are correct, he has little time left and if prison is meant to punish, surely he has served his time?

As for the rest, it is past time that all sides ate a bit of humble pie. Sadly, nobody seems willing to take the first bite.

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Published: Sep 7 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Clemency for ETA?”

  1. Excellent analysis. As an Irish person, I think the most positive step in the peace process in Northern Ireland was a deliberate decision by (nearly) all concerned to suppress their natural feelings of anger and desire for vengeance.

    Conflicts are not brought to an end by feelings, however justified and understandable, but by a cool objective discussion of where to go from here.

    I dearly wish that Spain could follow the Irish way of thinking. Please note that I don’t generally think the Basque situation is directly comparable to Ireland/Ulster, but rather the potential mechanisms of conflict resolution are models to follow.

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