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Prison hunger strike

ETA prisoners want the release of Ortega Lara’s kidnapper to appear a success of their own

As of Monday, more than a hundred imprisoned ETA terrorists had declared a hunger strike, demanding the release of Iosu Uribetxeberria, another ETA prisoner, terminally ill with cancer. The prison supervision judge in charge of the case is now awaiting the requisite medical reports, and the opinion of the Penitentiary Administration, in order to apply this measure.

In the logic of ETA, what matters is not so much what you obtain, as how you obtain it: in other words, that whatever happens can be attributed to the action of ETA. The Penal Code establishes (article 92) that persons convicted of terrorism “may obtain parole when, according to a medical report, they are suffering from a grave, incurable illness.”

Although the expression “may” indicates that this is not a right but only a possibility, if Uribetxeberria is as gravely ill as his peers affirm (and there is no reason to doubt this), then he will be released, as have been other ETA prisoners in similar cases in the past. But the point of the matter is that this release may be interpreted as an effect of the mobilization and the hunger strike, and not of the application of the law.

The terms of the law demand the medical report, but Uribetxeberria, transferred for this purpose from a hospital in León to another in San Sebastián, at first refused to be examined, while at the same time declaring himself to be on a hunger strike; two days later he agreed to submit to a medical checkup. All this is in line with the logic according to which his probable release may be presented as the result of the ETA struggle by means of radical methods.

Most democratic countries have norms such as this one, the reasons that underlie them being exclusively humanitarian, and not, as is sometimes claimed, related to justice. In this case the paradox is a sharp one because Uribetxeberria stands convicted, among other crimes, of kidnapping and holding captive the prison director José Antonio Lara, held by ETA for 532 days in conditions of extreme inhumanity.

Ramón Recalde, a former member of the Basque regional government whom ETA attempted to kill in 2000, wrote in his memoirs that for him the image of absolute evil, of deep human degradation, was that of the captors of Ortega Lara during their trial: laughing and joking behind the glass walls of their cubicle, indifferent to the account of this man’s near-fatal suffering.

Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the sector of the Basque radical independence movement that now opposes the terrorist strategy, has joined the hunger strike in solidarity with the captor of Ortega Lara. He may invoke humanitarian reasons, but in order to be credible he ought to have had the courage to accompany his gesture with some minimal recognition of Ortega Lara’s suffering, and some expression of regret about his own silence at the time of the trial. The fact that he has failed to do so shows the gulf that still separates him from essential democratic values.

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