Prison policy

Government’s gesture will allow some ETA convicts to move closer to the Basque Country

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz has announced new measures that could see growing numbers of jailed ETA activists be moved to prisons closer to, or in the Basque Country itself, as well as eventually making them eligible for early release.

The measures, outlined in a program announced on Thursday, work in stages. To join it, ETA activists would first have to renounce violence and publicly break with the terrorist group, which has been fighting for Basque independence for more than four decades. Importantly, they would not be required at this stage to make a formal apology to the victims of their crimes, nor to recognize the harm they have caused, or to provide the authorities with information about their previous activities.

Prisoners who join the program could be moved to jails in the Basque Country where the process of preparing them for an early release would take place in those cases where it was applicable.

The government’s plan seems carefully designed to find a balance between the majority opinion in the Basque Country that a key step toward a peaceful solution to the violence has always been bringing the more than 550 ETA prisoners held in Spanish jails — some as far away as the Canary Islands — back to the region, and the view in the rest of Spain, which is generally against such a move. These differing perspectives are reflected politically: parties in the Basque Country, including to a degree the Popular Party (PP) there, support the possibility of ending the policy of dispersing ETA prisoners; the PP at national level — largely due to the influence of associations representing ETA victims — remains against any change in the current situation.

The merit behind the government’s initiative is that it puts forward a new solution.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recognizes that ETA must be seen to end its campaign of violence without concessions from the government. But at the same time, the administration accepts that as this is now the situation, the organization having declared a definitive ceasefire six months ago, it is only logical to adapt prison policy to the new situation — in this case by ending the policy of dispersing prisoners, something that requires no change to the law, and that could easily be re-implemented should circumstances require it.

The government has now taken a cautious step in that direction. Of concern is that no sooner had the spokeswoman for the main association representing the victims of terrorism made clear her objections, insisting that all ETA prisoners must serve out in full their sentences, than several leading figures in the PP immediately distanced themselves from the proposals.

In the short term, the only way that ETA prisoners will take the step and break their ties with the organization’s leadership, calling for them to agree to disband once and for all, is if the government shows a degree of flexibility. In the medium term, such an approach will pave the way for them to recognize the harm they have caused and to ask forgiveness.