Terror and Civil Rights in Spain

President José María Aznar's conservative People's Party (PP) is using all the legal means at its disposal to pursue its strongest critics from within the Basque community. Its most outspoken critics face state-sponsored libel charges, and it has closed down the Batasuna party, political outlet for the Basque armed separatists ETA.

Tensions in the Basque political sphere were heightened with the onset of the war in Iraq and the PP's controversial support for it, and in the months ahead of local and regional elections on 25 May. In February a newspaper linked to ETA, Euskaldunon Egunkaria, was closed down and its staff alleged that they were tortured while in custody. Prosecutors investigated a Basque regional parliamentarian who described the Spanish king as "the torturers' boss".

The latest Basque politician to be charged with libel on the instigation of government prosecutors is Javier Madrazo, leader of the Basque section of the United Left (IU) party. He is accused of slandering the king, the royal family and Aznar during speeches made against the war in Iraq on two occasions in early April.

"Aznar is a terrorist like those of ETA," he said in one speech, "those who kill in Euskadi (the Basque Country) are just as much terrorists as those who lead the terrorist war in Iraq, just as Bush, Blair and Aznar are doing at this time".

He lamented King Juan Carlos' "silence" over the Spanish government's support for the US-led war in the face of near total opposition to it from the Spanish people. He thought this underlined "the undemocratic character" of the monarchy.

"Seeing as we pay for their palaces, yachts, skiing and riding holidays, it wouldn't have been too much to ask that they shared society's worry" about the war. Madrazo pointed out that as the king is constitutionally the head of state and captain general of the armed forces, Spain could not have entered the war coalition without his support.

Although his comments spoke for many in Spain opposed to the war, Madrazo was facing a government on the offensive. State lawyers argue that to equate ETA with the president was equivalent to calling him "murderer or violator of all kinds of rights and liberties." It was, they said, an intolerable attack on Aznar's public standing.

They added that Madrazo's view of the King went beyond free speech and reasonably expressed opposition to monarchies as political systems, "an objectively respectable opinion". It showed "contempt" towards the royal family and "therefore by extension, towards a regime supported by the enormous majority of Spanish people and approved in the constitution".

A group of 1,800 opponents of government policy have counterattacked on another front, calling on Aznar to respond in court "for the crimes against humanity that allied troops are committing in Iraq". The state lawyers took up the writ on 21 April, but as Spain did not declare war on Iraq and did not send combat forces, the complaint was dismissed.

Meanwhile, a Spanish defence ministry proposal to ban anti-war protests was leaked to the daily El País. Although disowned by the justice ministry, the defence department called for a ban on protests against "an armed conflict of an international nature" in which Spain was involved "with the aim of discrediting Spain's participation".

El Mundo quoted a ministry spokesperson on 22 April as describing the proposal as "just a draft" and not "a priority for this parliamentary session". The proposed 'crime' would have carried a prison sentence of between one and six years.

Since coming to power, Aznar's government has led a legal assault on terrorist sympathisers in the Basque region. Aznar's key phrase is that Spain is an "Estado de Derecho"; basically a state in which the 'rule of law ' prevails, where constitutional rights and responsibilities must be exercised and protected.

Under this doctrine, organisations, be they media or political groups, which support ETA forfeit their right to carry out their activities.

On 25 May there were elections all over Spain for regional parliaments and municipal councils. The banned Batasuna was barred from taking part. This is not the first time the separatist party has been outlawed under this government. In recent years it has got round the prohibition by changing its name from Euskal Herritarrok to Herri Batasuna to simply Batasuna.

This time the Supreme Court struck 241 candidates off the electoral lists on the grounds that they were ex-Batasuna activists standing under other party names, although the Constitutional Court later re-instated 16.

Of these 16, six were winners of the elections in Basque country municipalities. Grass roots support for the banned party was also shown by the use of unofficial voting slips by party supporters such as Batasuna spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi.

These were marked down as 'spoilt' ballots. This resulted in a 12-fold increase in spoilt votes, though they made up only 10 percent of the total.

At the moment it is the PP government in Madrid who claim to be winning, buoyed by the 7 May announcement that the US government is to include Batasuna on its list of terrorist organisations with the EU set to follow in the coming weeks.

In conversation with journalists on a plane, heading for meetings in the US, president Aznar alluded to the controversial decision to support the Bush administration in Iraq by saying "now we can see what the point of certain support was".

That support has had the effect of polarising Spanish public opinion, and the increasingly heavy-handed approach to criticism and dissent can only deepen division.

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