Thursday, May 10, 2012

Arnaldo Otegi's sentence reduced, kinda

Here’s the thing about the Spanish Government: they really don’t want an end to the Basque conflict. Without ETA’s “terrorism,” they would have to address the legitimate nationalist aspirations of roughly half of the Basque population. And, if Basque nationalism were to be disassociated from terrorism, more Basques would probably come to support self-determination. Add to this those pesky Catalan nationalists, and Spain’s got itself a real problem – one that not only affects the Spain's self-image (“Una, Grande y Libre”), but its pocketbook as well.

This partially explains why this week the Spanish judiciary threw yet another monkey wrench into the Basque peace process by "reducing" the prison sentence of Basque political leader Arnaldo Otegi by just enough so that he can't win office in the next elections in the region.

Some background first. Arnaldo Otegi is the most well-known political figure on the Basque nationalist left ("well-known" meaning "not at all known" in the US). After becoming the leader of Herri Batasuna in 1997, he was instrumental in moving the Basque left away from political violence toward nonviolent politics. For his efforts, Otegi was undermined by ETA – when it unilaterally ended the 2006 peace process through violence – and imprisoned by the state for much of the last decade. In 2009, the Spanish Audencia Nacional convicted Otegi and other political leaders of the Basque left for attempting to form a political party. Never mind the fact that the party's formation was seen by Otegi and his colleagues as a necessary step toward ending political violence in the Basque Country. From the perspective of the Spanish judiciary, the politicos were acting “in full collusion and following the directives” of ETA. And if terrorist want it, it must be terrorism. Even ending terrorism is terrorism. Such is the logic of the Spanish judiciary. It's also the logic of the United States Supreme Court.

There’s much more to “The Strange Case of Arnaldo Otegi.” But for now, this will have to suffice. Here’s a brief rundown of the man’s legal history.

Earlier this week, the Spanish High Tribunal “reduced” Otegi’s sentence of from ten to six years. Good news? Maybe. But the interesting thing isn’t the reduction, but how much of a reduction. The ruling will keep Otegi behind bars until well after the next elections in the Basque Autonomous community. This means that Otegi will not be able to become lehendakari (president of the Basque Autonomous Community) in 2013.

This is not great news for conflict resolution in the Basque Country. Since September 2010, ETA has held to its unilateral ceasefire. The Spanish judiciary responded to the ceasefire by imprisoning youth activists, pardoning police officers convicted of torture, and banning a newly formed political party that formally rejected political violence. Releasing Otegi would move the process forward with little cost, thus providing the Spanish Government with some leverage in their demands that ETA disarm and disband. By keeping Otegi behind bars, however, the judiciary has yet again validated ETA’s argument for armed struggle, i.e. that Basque separatists have no peaceful, legal means to work toward Basque self-determination.

Unsurprisingly, the Basque nationalist left has interpreted the ruling as politically motivated. According to Pernando Barrena, a longtime politico of the Basque left, the ruling “seeks to thwart the hegemony” of the Basque left in the coming elections. Clomunist IƱaki Iriondo argues that rather than undermining the political support for the Basque left, the political ruling will produce greater turnout and perhaps draw new support for the Basque Left in the 2013 elections. And Otegi, via his personal website, accused the judiciary of being “enemies of peace” and called on the Basque left to respond to the “neutralization” of his candidacy for the presidency by continuing with the Basque left post-violence strategy of electoral contention and nonviolent civil disobedience.

The idea of Arnaldo Otegi as President of the Basque Autonomous Community would be rather embarrassing for the conservative Spanish Government, which has over the last four decades portrayed the Basque conflict as one pitting an isolated and marginal terrorist organization against the majority of Basques that want to remain part of Spain. Therefore, denying Basque’s the right to self-determination is part of Spain’s “war on terror,” not the infringement of the democratic rights of a political community. Plus when you’re fighting terrorists, you get to do all kinds of undemocratic things, like banning political parties, arresting youth activists, and undoing freedoms of assembly and expression. 

If a “terrorist” like Otegi were to become lehendakari, this narrative would be undone. Democratic majorities don’t elect terrorists. Well, other than Mandela and Arafat and Kenyatta and others whom I don't feel like googling.

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