Rare show of Basque nationalist unity in massive Bilbao march

Ruling PNV joins left-wingers in support for ETA prisoners and a peace process after court had vetoed a similar protest

People march during a demonstration called by several Basque political parties, trade unions and social groups in Bilbao on January 11.
People march during a demonstration called by several Basque political parties, trade unions and social groups in Bilbao on January 11.RAFA RIVAS (AFP)

Around 110,000 people marched in Bilbao on Saturday in support of ETA prisoners and Basque independence, according to police estimates. Although having terrorism convicts transferred closer to home has been a historical claim of radical left-wing groups, on this occasion the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) joined the march, with some of its leaders walking prominently in the front lines.

“Impressive,” is how PNV president Andoni Ortuzar described a demonstration in which he joined leaders of Sortu, the legal heir to Batasuna, ETA’s outlawed political wing.

The unprecedented alignment of the PNV and Sortu coincides with a week of controversy surrounding the activities of ETA inmates recently released from jail after the Spanish judiciary was forced by a European court to revoke the Parot doctrine, a legal mechanism designed to keep terrorists and other dangerous prisoners in jail beyond the length of their reduced sentences. But by sharing the streets with the radical parties, the PNV has also drawn criticism from non-nationalist Basque groups who say this is a throwback to the 1998 nationalist coalition that paved the way for an ETA ceasefire, which ultimately lasted just 14 months.

Patxi López, leader of the Basque Socialists, said that Saturday’s march created an “unnecessary” barrier between nationalist and non-nationalist Basques.

Rajoy has confirmed his wish to meet with Basque premier to discuss penitentiary policies

The success of Saturday’s march may have been influenced by the fact that the High Court had vetoed an earlier attempt to organize at demonstration by the prisoners’ platform Tantaz Tanta in Bilbao on Saturday. The basis for the ban was that the High Court considers Tantaz Tanta to be the successor to the outlawed Herrira prisoners’ support organization.

The marchers in the front lines bore signs in the Basque language bearing the words “Human rights, agreement, peace.” No statements were read, as had been previously agreed by PNV and Sortu officials. Organizers’ early claims that the protest would be silent, however, were not respected, as marchers repeatedly yelled out demands to have ETA inmates transferred closer to home. There were also calls for Basque independence.

Ultimately, the march represented a protest against the Spanish government’s antiterrorist policies and its refusal until now to budge on the issue of prisoner transfers. However, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has confirmed his wish to meet with Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu, of the PNV, to discuss penitentiary policies and the Basque executive’s Peace and Coexistence Plan.

Although by joining the left-wing nationalist forces on Saturday, the PNV has illustrated its own rejection of Rajoy’s policies, PNV leader Ortuzar took care to call this support for ETA-linked circles “exceptional.”

PNV members of the Basque regional government were all conspicuously absent from the demonstration, including Urkullu himself.

The march comes on the back of a recent gathering of former ETA prisoners who were released early on orders from the European Court of Human Rights. The freed terrorists met to show support for the decision of their jailed comrades to recognize Spanish judicial and penitentiary authority in order to apply for individual sentence-reducing benefits, in the hopes of achieving early release as well.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS