Spain moves to outlaw Basque political party

Monday parliament is set to vote on whether to ban Batasuna, seen as a political wing of terror.

Silvia Martinez was playing in her bedroom when a bomb ripped through her family's home, killing her. The 6-year-old became one of the latest victims of the Basque separatist group ETA, which has killed more than 800 people over three decades.

While most of the nation was outraged by this most recent attack, on Aug. 4, the group alleged to be the political arm of ETA – the Basque party Batasuna – remained conspicuously quiet.

Now the Spanish government wants to ban Batasuna under a two-month-old zero-tolerance law for any party that supports terrorism. "There is no room for these people in a democratic Spain," Prime Minister José María Aznar said yesterday.

Monday Spain's parliament is expected to vote on whether to make the party illegal; a "yes" would send the issue to the Supreme Court.

Thousands of Batasuna supporters have taken to the streets of Bilbao, in northern Spain.

Although widely supported by a Spanish public weary of ETA's attacks, the initiative has drawn criticism from some observers who say that banning the party would in fact violate democratic principles. The critics also worry that the move could take the country further away from an eventual peace agreement, such as the one brokered in Northern Ireland.

"There are those who fear that terrorism will intensify, that removing the political arm will make ETA more clandestine and make peace impossible," says Felipe Sahagun, a professor of international relations at the Complutense University in Madrid. "And then there are those who believe that ETA is harder to catch if they are hiding in town halls, under legal cover. The truth is none of us knows what is going to happen."

More than 350 priests have signed a letter supporting four bishops in the Basque Country who say that outlawing Batasuna would likely lead to more divisions in the region.

Peio Astigarraga, the spokesman for the Basque Campaign organization based in London, condemns the government's effort as fascist. "It defies the history lessons we learned [during Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship]."

Batasuna denies that it is ETA's political wing, though it shares the paramilitary group's vision of an independent state for the 2 million Basques in northern Spain and southern France.

Some 400 active or former Batasuna members have been arrested over 23 years for collaborating with ETA.

High Court Judge Baltasar Garzon, working on a separate case to suspend Batasuna activities and confiscate its property, has alleged close ties between the legal political party and the outlawed paramilitary.

Spain, joining the global fight against terrorism, has stepped up its campaign against ETA since Sept. 11, using cooperation agreements with other European Union nations to break up terrorist cells and arrest leaders.

ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Fatherland and Liberty) arose as a reaction to Franco, who repressed Basque nationalism during his 1939-75 rule, even forbidding Basques to speak their language, Euskera.

In regional government polls, some 53 percent of Basques say the government's effort to outlaw Batasuna is undemocratic, and another 59 percent say it is ill advised. Most believe that maintaining political contacts with ETA is the only way to reduce violence.

"It's doubtful that you will be able to bring more peace by throwing away the vehicle to carry [ETA] to the political table," says Iñigo Gurruchaga, the London correspondent for the Basque newspaper El Correo.

Gurruchaga, who has covered the Northern Ireland conflict for 15 years, notes that government negotiations with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republic Army, were crucial in the peace process there.

ETA and the IRA, as well as their political allies, have maintained close ties and dialogue since the 1970s. A truce by ETA in 1998 was inspired in part by the successes of Northern Ireland's peace process. But there are critical differences between the two conflicts, among the most important that the Spanish government refuses to negotiate with the paramilitary until it disarms.

Prime Minister Aznar, who survived an assassination attempt in 1995, has taken a hard line with ETA. His ruling Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party both maintain that the only way to crack the paramilitary is to shut down everything associated with it. After the funeral of ETA's latest victims, Spanish media reported Aznar as saying : "I am not prepared for us to carry on burying victims while the leaders of Batasuna, who are human trash and as responsible as ETA for these crimes, are walking freely through the streets."

According to a recent poll, 74 percent of Spaniards favor the new Political Parties Law, which was passed in June with an overwhelming majority. In other surveys, a majority of Spaniards have named combating terrorism as a top priority.

Since the cease-fire was broken in December 1999, after 15 months, ETA has seemed to become more radical. The State Department's 2001 report on international terrorism notes that ETA has "appeared to become increasingly indiscriminate in its attacks, targeting, for example, intersections and shopping areas." During the EU Summit in Seville this spring, the group set off five bombs around the country. Soon after Sept. 11, the group set off a bomb in a Madrid neighborhood that wounded more than 20.

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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