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ETA prisoners

The group has eased its control so that terrorist inmates can negotiate favorable measures

ETA is taking steps toward the consolidation of the new situation that has been created by its announcement of a definitive end to violence. The latest of these steps has been a change in strategy regarding its members and former members serving prison sentences. At the end of September, the group's prison population believed that it was necessary to eliminate references to the legal steps for their demands from the Gernika Declaration, the document which lays out the framework for the future. Now they have been authorized to take the legal route, including the acceptance of the principle that the requests for leniency should be made on an individual basis.

ETA was opposed to this in order to differentiate the attitude of its faithful followers from that of the dissidents in the Nanclares prison, who not only respected the procedures that are in place within the penal system in order to gain access to penitentiary benefits, but also made public statements in favor of a definitive end to violence.

But now, the group has assumed that situation, and as such it makes no sense to perpetuate that differentiation, however much they would like to present it as a collective decision, to underline that this is not about individualistic attitudes. This does not change the meaning of the change in direction, which assumes the implicit recognition that it was the Nanclares inmates who were right, in spite of the fact that the new Basque radical left never dared to recognize them as part of the "collective of Basque political prisoners."

The issue of the 700 or so prisoners is one that will await the government that emerges from the elections on Sunday. In order to deal with it, the most urgent thing is to avoid rushing. This must be approached with respect for the law, but at the same time taking into account the new situation: the toughening up of the legislation regarding prisons, in 2003, was principally designed to reinforce the dissuasive effect of jail terms. But that function does not have the same significance now as it did when ETA was killing, and this can be taken into account in its application. For example, with respect to the way in which the disassociation from terrorist activity - as is required by the Penal Code, before penitentiary benefits can be granted - is proven.

It is possible that the group's distancing itself from terrorism will one day allow for that legislation to be relaxed somewhat. In the meantime, suggestions such as those made by ETA members last week in an interview in the pro-Basque independence newspaper Gara - saying that the prisoner issue is related to what they call "consequences of the conflict," among which they include "demilitarization," understood to be French and Spanish security forces leaving Basque territory - are very unhelpful.

These are delusions of grandeur that contrast with the signs that suggest that the decision to abandon violent means is a solid one. For example, the refusal to accompany its approach with the usual threat of "activating all of the fronts" should its political demands not be agreed upon. Even though they have used the infamous argument that terrorism "is no longer efficient," they are now saying that if no one takes any notice of them, they will insist on the same route, with new unilateral initiatives. This is a considerable difference.

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