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Productive hunger strike

ETA member De Juana Chaos' hunger strike proved effective with the Socialist government, but Josu Uribetxeberria's protest has not had the same effect

From blockbuster blast to hearing a pin drop. This is the difference in the effect of hunger strikes by two imprisoned ETA terrorists.

In 2007 Iñaki de Juana Chaos - with 25 murders to his credit (a bomb that destroyed a police bus) and a sentence of 3,129 years in prison - went on a hunger strike, the most productive one of any ETA terrorist so far.

And a few weeks ago Josu Uribetxeberria - one of the men who held the prison director José Antonio Ortega Lara captive in a tiny underground cell for 16 months, besides having killed three policemen - demanded that he be released on humanitarian grounds, since he has terminal cancer, and to that end went on a hunger strike. A rather unproductive one, however.

By 2007, De Juana Chaos had spent 18 years in prison for his deeds. He had not followed the ETA leadership's directions in the matter of not applying for parole benefits under the terms of the old Criminal Code, which liberally allowed for sentence reduction on grounds of work and good behavior. Despite the operatic 3,129-year sentence, a 30-year maximum sentence was applicable. He had been a good boy in prison. So he would soon become eligible for release.

The public indignation (especially on the right) at this prospect was huge. The terms of the old Criminal Code, that allowed for such early releases, were hurriedly changed to prevent repetitions. And a new case was brought against De Juana Chaos - it is hard to think that the pressure of public opinion had nothing to do with it.

In prison he had written some letters to a pro-ETA newspaper, containing phrases that could be construed as threats against opponents of ETA. On these rather tenuous grounds, he was given a sentence that would keep him in jail for another 12 years. The Supreme Court later reduced it to three.

Proclaiming that even this was the result of a trumped-up kangaroo charge, and demanding his release, De Juana Chaos went on a hunger strike, which developed into a lengthy one. On December 30, 2006, ETA had broken its "truce," setting off a massive bomb in a parking structure in Madrid's Barajas Airport, which killed two people - so the climate for release of ETA prisoners was poor.

But in February The Times of London published a photo of an emaciated De Juana Chaos in a hospital bed, looking like an inmate of a Serbian prison camp. Given the shakiness of the legal (if not moral) case for keeping him in jail, the embarrassment to the Spanish government was great.

So the Zapatero government gave him partial parole (causing massive demonstrations organized by the right), and finally he was released in August 2008, to a hero's welcome among the subculture of ETA.

Now Uribetxeberria has tried to do the same, encouraged by the Basque radical left. But the situation is different. Unlike the Socialist Zapatero, the rightist PP government of Rajoy feels no unease at all about keeping a number of ETA prisoners in jail, whose sentences were prolonged under a Spanish Supreme Court ruling called the Parot doctrine.

On an appeal by an ETA prisoner, the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg has ruled that the Parot Doctrine is inadmissible, a violation of the prisoner's rights. Where some other governments might admit the Strasbourg Court's arguments and release the prisoners concerned, the Rajoy government is likely to drag its feet in further appeals to the bitter end.

With grim crisis news coming down right and left, Uribetxeberria's hunger strike has caused all the media noise of a pin dropping. Last Wednesday he went off it, opting to make "his life a priority." He will be released when the judge considers he is actually dying, as in similar cases in the past.

As for the other ETA prisoners who have declared hunger strikes in solidarity with him, they have loyally refused the meals served them. However, they have been observed purchasing snacks in the prison store.

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