terrorism and the law

ETA bomber Inés del Río released from A Coruña jail

Popular Party government moves to avoid backlash from victims over Strasbourg ruling

Inés del Río (third from right) leaves an A Coruña jail on Tuesday, accompanied by her lawyer and members of her family.
Inés del Río (third from right) leaves an A Coruña jail on Tuesday, accompanied by her lawyer and members of her family.Eliseo Trigo (EFE)

The Popular Party (PP) government has once again been put on the back foot by a court order concerning an ETA inmate. The last time sparks flew within the PP’s executive committee was when a Spanish court ordered the compassionate release of Josu Uribetxeberria Bolinga, a terrorist inmate diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ever since Bolinga’s release, the authorities have dedicated a good deal of time to trying to get him back inside prison so he can complete his term.

There will be no such maneuvering in the case of Inés del Río,  European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision to strike down the so-called “Parot doctrine,” under which sentence reductions for working or attending education courses are applied to a single offense instead of the maximum 30-year sentence dictated by the 1973 criminal code.

Del Río, who was sentenced to almost 4,000 years for her part in a series of attacks carried out by ETA’s Madrid cell in the 1980s that left 23 people dead, was released on Tuesday afternoon. She was met outside the prison by a dozen family members, who were carrying a Basque flag.

In response, the PP is embarking on a damage-limitation exercise, which started a few weeks ago when it became clear that Strasbourg was going to rule in favor of the ETA bomber. It culminated on Monday in the media appearance of the justice and interior ministers, who were dressed as though at a funeral and conveyed a palpable air of solemnity.

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“There is no negotiation, ETA has been defeated,” said Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz in a message to victims’ associations and PP hardliners on Monday. Fernández was careful to be seen with María Ángeles Pedraza, president of the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT), and Marimar Blanco, who heads the Victims of Terrorism Foundation, as well as holding a post as a PP regional deputy and being the sister of Miguel Ángel Blanco, a PP councilor who was murdered by ETA in 1997.

Blanco said she had “been calmed” by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón’s assurance that each case of release for an ETA inmate would be studied separately. Lawyers acting for Del Río filed appeals for a further 55 ETA inmates on Tuesday. Eduardo Torres-Dulce, the attorney general, stated that his office would not “draw out or speed up” any of the petitions, adding that the Del Río ruling would not necessarily apply to all of the ETA prisoners.

“We do not want to see that photograph of a massive release,” said Blanco, in line with the government’s desire to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. “It is hard to digest that these people, who have violated human rights more than anybody else in this country, are now being supported by the European Court of Human Rights,” she added. “If she is released now, she will have served less than a year for each of the murders she committed.”

But what the government really fears are rebellions by the victims’ associations and large sections of its voter base and party membership. Also of concern are the likely homages — known in the Basque language as ongi etorri, or “welcomes” — for released ETA prisoners in their homes in the Basque Country, which are being prepared by supporters of the group. State security organizations have been readying for weeks to swoop on any acts of glorifying terrorism. In Fernández’s words, the “humiliation of the victims” must be avoided at all costs.

In the wake of Del Río’s release, Pedraza of the AVT announced a demonstration in the center of Madrid this coming Sunday to “ask for justice.” The association held a remembrance service for victims in the capital on Tuesday, which was attended by the Popular Party regional premier Ignacio González.

While the government seeks to soften the blow delivered by the ECHR, the victims associations have pointed to a precedent of an EU nation ignoring a Strasbourg ruling: in 2005 the ECHR informed the United Kingdom that its refusal to let prisoners vote was a breach of human rights, but to date the authorities there have failed to heed the court’s ruling. The UK Supreme Court this year reminded the administration of Prime Minister David Cameron of the judicial hierarchy on the continent. This led to a promise to present a proposal in the House of Commons as early as December, but with certain limitations such as only extending suffrage to inmates with sentences of less than four years.

Also on Tuesday, ETA member Antonio Troitiño Arranz was released from prison in England on bail following a decision by the British Supreme Court in the wake of the Strasbourg ruling. Spanish authorities will present their position on an extradition order hanging over Troitiño in a week’s time. He was sentenced to 2,700 years for 22 murders but was released in 2011 on a legal technicality having served 24 years. Troitiño promptly left the country and was rearrested in Hounslow, London.

Also on Tuesday, the FAES think-tank, presided by former Popular Party Prime Minister José María Aznar, blamed the Socialist administration of his successor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, for the ECHR’s decision to quash the Parot doctrine.

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