The Constitutional Court has refused the parole requested by Arnaldo Otegi, the secretary-general of the abertzale(Basque separatist left) party Sortu, sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization. The ruling has sparked fierce political controversy in the Basque Country. Political, because the question in hand is a political one, and so are the arguments being bandied around, however much the court has found itself obliged to translate them into juridical terms.
Chronology is central to this case. Otegi and other leaders of the abertzale left were arrested in October of 2009, accused of attempting to re-launch the former separatist party Batasuna, which had previously been outlawed as a mere instrument of the terrorist organization ETA. In the previous months, especially after the European Court of Human Right’s ruling endorsing the ban on the party, Otegi headed an initiative tending to abandon the “politico-military” (i.e. violent) strategy in favor of one based “exclusively on political and democratic means,” according to later testimony from people he contacted that summer.
Tried in June 2011 before the National High Court, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization, in a leadership role. The court deduced this from the existence of close coincidences between ETA’s proposals and demands, as set forth in its communiqués, and the decisions of Otegi’s group. By May 2012, when the appeal brought by the arrested parties came before the Supreme Court, the armed activity of ETA had already ceased and, in February of that year, the new abertzale party Sortu — whose statutes included among its objectives the “definitive disappearance of ETA violence” — had appeared, and was legalized a month later. The Supreme Court reduced Otegi’s sentence from 10 to six-and-a-half years, considering it not proved that Otegi and the others were terrorist leaders.
Otegi’s appeal to the Constitutional Court, brought soon afterward, was admitted to consideration a month ago, at the same times as the court opened a separate proceeding to decide on the request that he be granted parole until the appeal hearing was held. The ruling now issued denies that possibility, on grounds of the social importance of the crime under consideration and the gravity of the sentence imposed. In so doing, the Constitutional Court has missed an opportunity to correct, at least in part, the absurdity that subsequent events have made of the conviction. We may speculate as to Otegi’s intentions at the moment when he propitiated a change of strategy in the abertzale left, but we cannot deny its existence, and its influence on the withdrawal of ETA.
Seen from the present time, it is absurd to suppose that an initiative aimed at achieving ETA’s withdrawal from the political scene could have been engineered from within the organization itself. And other rulings of the Constitutional Court itself, such as that on the legalization of Bildu (another abertzale party, more explicitly non-violent than Sortu), discredited the theory that coincidences with ETA in certain initiatives — such as the commitment to the pro-sovereignty front, obvious enough in a secessionist party — demonstrate genuine subordination to ETA.
Otegi may be blamed for many things, but not precisely the thing for which he was arrested on October 13, 2009 and for which he remains in prison, more than two-and-a-half years later.