Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why the plan to pardon Basque political prisoners won't work

According to the philosophy of the Liberation Movement, the political prisoners symbolize the existence of a political conflict with the Spanish (or French) state and their unwillingness to give up their militancy or to abdicate from the armed struggle is interpreted as an heroic sacrifice of their personal interest for the Basque nation’s benefit and its fight for freedom. On the contrary, those prisoners who might consider a return to civil life automatically become the anti-hero, the collaborator with the enemy, charged with betrayal and, in extreme case, sentenced to death by the organization.
-- Ludger Mees, Nationalism, Violence, and Democracy: The Basque Clash of Identities
Continuing from where I left off last week, I want to consider the rejection by the Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) of the Spanish government’s “new” offer regarding prisoners. According to their statement:
The penitentiary policy responds to a war strategy. But the EPPK has confronted it with firmness, condemning the plans of the states to failure. The current political situation is also the fruit of the struggle of the EPPK, it is this struggle that has brought us here, and it is also which makes us and will make us free. 
The repentance-denunciation is nothing but a way designed for the destruction of the person and the militant, and that is why we criticize it and repudiate it. The pressures, the blackmail, the attempts to break down must stop now, also the use of “penitentiary benefits” to deny our rights. 
We are a reflection of the political conflict and every exit must be connected to an integral resolution of the same: that of amnesty and self-determination. Putting the roots of the conflict on ways of solution, freeing all of those who are imprisoned and making sure that there is never another. With the end of participating together with our people in the political process, all impediments to our release must disappear. 
The Collective expresses its complete disposition to take new steps in the future, if the conditions are given for it.
The first thing one should note is that this plan is anything but new -- though it is being presented as such by the Spanish government. The plan, known as the "via Nanclares" or “the Bandres Solution,” was actually developed in the early eighties to facilitate the disengagement of the faction ETA politico-militar (or, rather, a faction of that faction). The plan was in part based on the Italian “Pentiti” program designed to allow repentant members of the Red Brigades their freedom in exchange for collaborating with authorities. Officially, the Spanish model of the eighties did not include collaboration as part of the deal -- though there were allegations at the time that some of the repentant prisoners did in fact provide police with incriminating information on their former comrades.

The current model, however, does entail some collaboration, though not as a preliminary step. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, the plan would involve successive steps to be taken by the repentant prisoner. First, the individual prisoner would have to denounce ETA in a manner that is “clear, solemn, and public” in order to enter into the program. The next steps would require the prisoner to enroll in some form of classes emphasizing the values of coexistence. (I’m sure some will see this as “reeducation.”) In order to continue with the plan and obtain benefits normal prisoners receive -- such as access to education and being imprisoned within one’s home region -- the prisoner will have to collaborate with the judiciary (presumably in ongoing investigations against ETA) and ask for forgiveness from their victims. This latter stipulation would presumably only apply in cases in which violence was conducted against individuals; members of Segi, Batasuna, or other nonviolent organization currently serving time for “membership in ETA” would have no one from whom to ask forgiveness. Maybe they'll simply have to apologizes to Spanish society in general.

As I’ve indicated above there’s nothing “new” about this plan. It is being presented a such by the Rajoy Administration in a PR move to make them look less intransigent. Unsurprisingly, various representatives of the victims of terrorism associations have come out against the plan.

I now would like to consider why ETA, political prisoners, and the Basque Left movement are against this plan. In my view, the reasons for this are historic, procedural, organizational, political, and individual.
  • Historic -- The earlier social reinsertion programs have created a stigma that significantly impacts current attempts. The Bandres effort of the eighties -- along with another simultaneous program not associated with any single party or insurgent group -- were largely unsuccessful: though it’s difficult to get exact numbers on how many took advantage of these offers, the number does not appear to have exceeded 200, with exiled ETA members comprising the majority of those who received its benefits. The vast majority of ETA politico-militar refused to participate in the reinsertion program, including most of those in prison at the time. More importantly, the stigma attached to the Bandres Solution has more to do with the fortunes of Bandres’ party -- Euskadiko Ezkerra -- than with the limited success of this program. The party leadership eventually abandoned Basque nationalism and were integrated into the Basque wing of the Spanish Socialist Party, creating an association in the minds of many between accepting state pardons and the abandonment of nationalism
  • Procedural -- At this point, the procedure is rather unclear. First, what would be the nature of the “classes/lectures” that individual prisoners would be required to attend? The reference to “the values of coexistence” is rather ambiguous. If coexistence has a Spanish nationalist character, it will likely repel many prisoners. More problematic is the indication that some form of collaboration will be necessary. Exactly what kind of collaboration will be required? Though some of the newer prisoners surely have current information on the organization, many others have been in prison for too long to assist police efforts against ETA. My guess is that the judiciary would seek collaboration in establishing links between Batasuna, and its leaders in particular, and ETA in order to dismantle further the political leadership of the Basque Left.

  • Organizational -- The individual pardon policy is a fairly obvious method of “divide and conquer.” By offering this as the solution to the prisoners’ issue, the Spanish government clearly hopes to avoid dealing with ETA as an organization. For this very reason, it will not work. Despite its relative lack of centralization and control structures, ETA has been a remarkably durable and unified organization. The French and Spanish states has been almost entirely unsuccessful in infiltrating the group by turning members. Harsh prison sentences have also had little effect on individual allegiance to the group: only a small number of individuals have defected from the group while behind bars. As indicated above, the identification of ETA members with the group was one of the primary reasons why earlier reinsertion efforts didn’t work.

  • Political -- From the state’s perspective, this individual-level program not only avoids talking with ETA, it allows the state to bypass Basque nationalists in general. In short, it’s an effort to seek some modicum of conflict resolution with reaching a political settlement. ETA, however, is a political organization, its members motivated by political commitments -- not, as the Spanish press often alleges, by criminal interests or individual pathology. As a political organization, ETA understands that its strength comes from collective action, not only among its members, but with the organizations and associations of the Basque Left. This is especially true in the absence of political violence. Furthermore, the individual reinsertion program will not address the political issues at the heart of the Basque conflict, not the least of which is the repression of the nonviolent Basque Left.
  • The Individual -- The working assumption behind this project is that each prisoner is motivated by self-interest, that he or she will put the personal desire for freedom over the needs of the group. But this thinking does not take into account the peculiarities of the militant psyche. After all, these people have decided to forego normal life for what they perceive to be the benefit of the group -- in this case, the Basque nation. This certainly does not apply to every member of the organization, and prison may have weakened this commitment for some. But, for many, the group is the source of their personal sense of honor and self-respect. Furthermore, this association may serve as an existential defense mechanism, allowing one to derive meaning from the suffering endured in prison. The fact that the plan both seeks to cut the individual’s ties with the group and devalue their participation with it -- through reeducation and begging forgiveness -- which may make it psychologically unattractive to many since others would interpret it as a “betrayal.” And this stigma would extend beyond the prison walls. Upon returning to one’s hometown or neighborhood, friends and family would know one betrayed the group. In fact, this was the reason why the two programs during established in the eighties did not consist of a public denunciation of ETA: it was understood that making prisoners publicly renounce the organization would prevent participation, since no one wants to be seen as a traitor. Finally, the stigma could extend to one’s family, effectively cutting them off from the collective aid that prisoners’ relatives receive from the abertzale community -- such as money collected to defray the cost of having to travel to visit an imprisoned relative -- adding to the program's limited attractiveness,

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