26 December 2009

Belfast Basque Solidarity Committee send solidarity at Christmas to Basque Political Prisoners

The Belfast Basque Solidarity Committee has joined with Coiste na n-Iarchimí in a campaign  that will see messages of support and solidarity at Christmas time sent to Basque prisoners, in Spain, France and the Basque Country.

Speaking on behalf of the initiative, Kevin Morrison from the Belfast Basque Solidarity Committee said:

“Each year the Belfast Basque Solidarity Committee send messages of solidarity to Basque political prisoners who are held in over 80 jails across France, Spain and the Basque country.  This year we are very happy to have the support of Coiste na n-Iarchimí.

“Together with Coiste we have designed a poster which reflects messages of solidarity from ex prisoners from Ireland that also expresses the sense of community between those who face political persecution for their beliefs.

“This year has seen many more people enter prisons, especially in Spain and the Basque Country due to a large amount of arbitrary arrests of people in political parties, social and youth groups and journalists. While this has been a fact of life over in the past number of years, this year has seen a marked increase in arrests and imprisonments.

“We hope that the sending of these messages will in some way help ease the burden of those in jail over the Christmas period and let them know that people from around the world have not forgotten them.”

Adding to this Michael Culbert, Director of  of Coiste na n-Iarchimí said: at

“Obviously from an ex-prisoners support group we have at first hand experience, of prisoner difficulties and the hardship and isolation they may face, but this can be especially acute at Christmas time.

“We are only too pleased to be asked to help out with this initiative and send these messages of support and solidarity.”

24 December 2009

Ancient Basque traditions remain alive and strong over winter solstice

For the Basque people, Christmas has always been one of the best-loved holidays of the year. Having the whole family round for Christmas dinner, our carols and our ancient customs, such as Olentzero, have always been at the centre of the celebrations. As Basques we live with great intensity, and for us Christmas means festivals "par excellence".

Nowadays, as in the rest of the world, Christmas has become a very consumerist affair, but in the Basque Country it is something more as well: It is the reflection of a country's history, with traditions that have been handed down by our ancestors, and which still remain in many families. It's also a time to remember those who are away from home, specially the Basque political prisoners and exiles. All across the country hundreds of vigils are organised in Christmas eve in support of them and relatives and friends carry their pictures and banners at the Olentzero parades.

The Christmas tree remains one of the key references this time of year in the Basque Country. Our parents can still remember the wood being collected in Autumn, and the way in which the best tree was taken home still intact. This custom continues. Now there is no need for a heifer to drag the tree back home, but many homes are decorated with a Christmas tree. The tree is typical of northern Europe, but reflects the fondness Basques have for the Christmas tree tradition.

But undoubtedly the tradition most deeply rooted in the Basque Country is that of "Olentzero" or coal man. On Christmas Eve, throughout virtually all Basque towns and villages, the figure of a shepherd or a coal man is lifted up, sitting in a basket, onto the shoulders of people who take it from house to house; at every house it passes, the young people accompanying the Olentzero stop to sing a Christmas carol.

In Navarre, for example, the Olentzero is a coal man who comes down from the mountains to hand out chestnuts and wine, and of course presents for the little ones. He is a mythical Basque character; a messenger; a shepherd who cries out that it is Christmas time in all the corners of the Basque Country. But he is not only a shepherd; in some parts he is a farm worker and in others he is the coalman; either way, they are all bringers of good news.

The Olentzero has also been associated with many other beliefs and customs, such as the deeply-rooted tradition of Basque cuisine. In Salvatierra in Alava, for example, the Olentzero is a coalman who, after having lived a hard life up in the mountains, comes back to his village to bring good news and at the same time have a great feast to make up for the hunger which he has suffered.

This mythical character has a big head, a large belly and, according to local traditions, is capable of drinking ten "arrobas" (one arroba is about twenty-five pounds in weight) of wine. In Hondarribia, aside from carrying a pipe, a capon, some eggs and a bottle of wine, he usually has a tail made of cod, and if a village erects an Olentzero for Christmas, a barbecue is usually set up next to him where sardines are handed out free of charge.

Christmas carols also make up an important part of the festivities. The idea is that they represent a cheerful greeting which is taken from house to house; a verse is dedicated either to the whole family or to one special member. These songs continue to be sung in all Basque families.

Demand for official Basque national teams

Well known sport men and women, clubs, political parties and social organizations demand the right to have official Basque national teams and organise a massive event in the Donostia/San Sebastian's velodrome on the 27th of December.

There is huge support for Basque national teams with some like the football squad playing friendly international matches every year. Despite this the Spanish and French federations block any attempt to gain international official recognition.

Basque political prisoner attempts suicide

Basque political prisoner Igor Gonzalez attempted to commit suicide last Tuesday. His personal psychologist had visited him the previous day and had asked the prison staff to look after him due to his terrible condition. The warnings were ignored and Igor cut his veins the next morning.

Despite this he was later on the same day transferred to an unknown jail.

The Basque prisoners' solidarity groups have denounced the lack of medical assistance and the hard living conditions they live in.

21 December 2009

Thousands rally in support of the Egunkaria five

Around 30,000 people took part in a national demonstration last Saturday in Bilbao to support those indicted in the Egunkaria case. The Basque language Egunkaria was closed down by the Spanish authorities in 2003 and ten members of the administration council and editorial team were arrested and tortured. Some of them were also imprisoned.

Last Monday a trial started against five of them, including director Martxelo Otamendi. They face up to 14 years in jail.

All Basque political parties and trade unions except the pro-Spanish unionists parties PSOE and PP and trade union UGT took part in the rally.

18 December 2009

Day Two of the Egunkaria trial

From Ainara Gorostitzu of the Egunkaria defence campaign.

Day 2 of the trial in the Egunkaria case, in Madrid

The Guardia Civil (Spanish police) has not submitted any evidence to link Egunkaria with ETA

--The Prosecutor did not question the Police officers today, either, because he has found no evidence of any crime in the Egunkaria case

--The trial is set to resume on January 12

"I don’t remember requesting that a newspaper be closed down, but if that’s what it says in the report, I must have requested 'Egunkaria' to be closed down", said a Guardia Civil officer today on day two of the trial against Egunkaria in reply to a question put to him by the defence counsel. Today’s session started at 10:26 and adjourned at 12:20, and one of the four police officers failed to show up. The examining Judge Juan del Olmo based his decision to close down 'Egunkaria' on 20 February 2003 on a report filed by the Guardia Civil. The Prosecutor did not question Iñaki Uria, Xabier Oleaga, Martxelo Otamendi, Joan Mari Torrealdai and Txema Auzmendi, the indictees who ran the Basque-language newspaper yesterday, either, and they confirmed that they had had no connection with ETA. The indictees were informed that the trial would resume on January 12.

Today it was the turn of the Spanish Guardia Civil in the trial against Egunkaria being held at the National Criminal Court in Madrid. The Guardia Civil closed down the Basque-language daily on the orders of Juan del Olmo of the Spanish National Criminal Court; yet the examining judge had taken a report drawn up by the Guardia Civil as the basis, and the police officers in court today referred to it. They confirmed that there was a connection between Egunkaria and ETA but did not submit any evidence. One of the officers testifying today had requested the judge to close down the paper. What is more, this was the Guardia Civil officer who had taken statements from Joan Mari Torrealdai, Iñaki Uria, Txema Auzmendi and Xabier Oleaga while the four were being held incommunicado.

Today’s session lasted two hours and the trial is to be adjourned until January. In addition to the failure of the police officers to submit evidence, the same thing as yesterday happened: the Prosecutor Miguel Angel Carballo did not question anyone today, decided not to ask the Guardia Civil officers any question, and informed the judge accordingly. Iñigo Iruin, the defence lawyer, asked the investigating Guardia Civil officer whether he had ordered Egunkaria to be closed down and he said he could not remember. "I don’t remember requesting that a newspaper be closed down, but if that’s what it says in the report, and it says I did it, I must have requested 'Egunkaria' to be closed down", replied the officer. The other two spoke along similar lines. The last one only testified for a few minutes.

Yesterday’s session. Yesterday was the first day of the trial, the most important news was that the Prosecutor did not ask the five Egunkaria indictees any questions. It was the reflection of how he had acted in the proceedings, because he had requested at the time that the case be dropped –so had the defence counsel– arguing that there were no crimes to answer. What is more, the indictees confirmed that they had had no links with ETA, which is what the private prosecutions brought by the organisations, Dignidad y Justicia and the AVT, are accusing them of. Yesterday, only the five indictees testified: Iñaki Uria, Xabier Oleaga, Martxelo Otamendi, Joan Mari Torrealdai and Txema Auzmendi. They did not answer the questions put to them by Dignidad y Justicia and the AVT, but they did reply to the questions put to them by the defence counsel. No prosecution has been brought by individuals or organisations affected in this case. Yet the panel of judges decided on July 30 that the trial should go ahead and that is what has been taking place since yesterday.

Following today’s session there will not be any more until 12 January (Tuesday) as announced by the panel of judges. That is when the Egunkaria witnesses currently in prison will be testifying. The sessions will then be held from January 25 to 29. In the proceedings, prison terms are being sought only by Dignidad y Justicia and the AVT; prison terms of between 12 and 14 years for each of the indictees, and disqualification for 14-15 years (a ban on holding public positions and standing in elections) because they are regarded as being members of ETA. Javier Gomez Bermudez heads the panel of judges, the other judges being Ramon Saez Valcarcel and Manuela Fernandez Prado.

16 December 2009

This week's Basque Info podcast now available

Listen to this week's Basque Info podcast with the latest news and an interview with Ógra Shinn Féin member Dave Collins about his experiences in the Basque Country in the aftermath of the arrests of 36 pro-independence youth activists.

Trial against Basque language newspaper Egunkaria begins.

On 3rd February 2003, the Spanish police ordered the definitive closure of Euskaldunon Egunkaria, the only daily newspaper published in the Basque language. This was followed by the arrest of ten people. All of them were well known and respected Basque language and culture activists, journalists and writers. One of them is a Jesuit brother.

They were held incommunicado for five days under the anti-terrorist law. Some of them were imprisoned and others later released. One of them, the newspaper’s director, told journalists at the prison gates he had been savagely tortured. His words and his shattered appearance shocked Basque society.

The operation was ordered by the Spanish National Court on the grounds that Egunkaria allegedly formed part of a wider group of businesses and organisations controlled by ETA – the old “all is ETA” motto.

Immediately after the closure hundreds of protests took place across the Basque Country, including what was probably the largest demonstration ever to take place in the country two days after the closure.

Nearly four years later on 15th December 2006, the National Court Prosecutor determined that there were no grounds for the case and requested a stay of proceedings.

Despite this, six months later a court hearing was officially announced.
In the hearing it was concluded that only five of those arrested would finally go to trial: Joan Mari Torrealdai, ex-President of the administrative council of Egunkaria; Iñaki Uria, ex-Managing Director; Txema Auzmendi, former Administrative Council Secretary; Martxelo Otamendi, ex-Director; and Xabier Oleaga, former deputy director.

The trial begun yesterday Tuesday 15th in Madrid, with the accused facing sentences of between 12 and 14 years in prison, in addition to a further 14 to 15-year ban from practicing journalism. For the last months many support events have been organised and the presence of the leaders of the majority of Basque political parties and trade unions and education, culture and language movements’ representatives at the gates of the Spanish National Court yesterday was proof of the broad support they have in Basque society.

The hearing began with the testimonies of the accused who stated the newspaper was created by the Basque language grass roots movement to fill the crucial vacuum of a newspaper written in the national language and without any intervention by ETA.

They also told the court how they had been subjected to torture while detained incommunicado but the judges ordered them not to talk about this.

Aside from the accusations that form the basis of Tuesday's trial, there are further charges of attempting to falsify accounts and defraud the Treasury, of which eight defendants stand accused.

They could face up to between 13 and 26 years in prison and possible fines of between 21 and 33 million euro. The date for this trial is yet to be announced.

More info: http://egunkaria.info/international/

Thousands against repression and political trials.

Following the same policies imposed by George W. Bush around the world with his “preventive wars”, from 2003 to 2005 116 Basque pro-independence citizens were arrested and most of them tortured and imprisoned in the so-called “preventive” police operations. They were accused of being potential members of ETA.

2,500 people took part in a demonstration in Iruñea/Pamplona last Saturday to show support for two local youths who are being judged along with another 11 people in one of the first trials for the preventive arrests.

The march was organised with the slogan “Yes to the possible development of all political projects”. Other banners carried slogans like “No to political trials” and “Stop torture”.

Demonstration in Iruñea/Pamplona last Saturday.

2,500 people took part in another demonstration the same day in Donostia/San Sebastian to show support for the many local youth who will stand trial over the next months for their political work within the youth movement. They are accused of being members of the banned pro-independence organization Segi. Around 150 young people have been arrested for the same reason over the last two years across the Basque Country. They face sentences of eight years in jail.

The first trial against Segi activists took place in 2005 and 23 were sentenced to six years in jail. Ten of those youth activists were released last week after doing their six-year sentences to the full. Others were released during 2009, five more were arrested while on the run and sentenced last month and another one, Arturo “Benat” Villanueva, is fighting an extradition warrant in Belfast. Despite the extradition being declared invalid by a Belfast judge the prosecution appealed. Last Monday a hearing was held at the High Court and a decision will be made in the next few weeks.

Strength of Basque culture and political commitment showed at the Improvisers Final.

Last Sunday 15,000 people filled the Barakaldo Exhibition Centre near Bilbao for the four-yearly Basque language Improvisers Final and dozens of thousands followed the show on TV, radio and internet.
The seven-hour-long event ended with victory for the 33-year-old Maialen Lujanbio, the first woman ever to win the championship. Bertsolaritza or the practice of improvised singing is hugely popular in the Basque Country and it’s a great example of the old Basque traditions that have survived for centuries despite repression.
During this historical and highly emotional final some subjects appeared repeatedly: solidarity with the Basque political prisoners, against torture, support for those indicted in the Egunkaria case and calls for unity in favour of independence.

The eight bertsolaris' (improvisers) entrance and first bertsos (verses).

Moving  farewell bertso of champion Maialen Lujanbio.

10 December 2009

Basque Info radio program available

Listen to this week's Basque Info radio program with the lastest news and a tribute to great Basque song writer Mikel Laboa on the first anniversary of his death.

New information about Jon Anza on the 8th month of his disappearance.

Eight months ago former Basque political prisoner Jon Anza went missing after boarding a train in Baiona (northern Basque Country) going to the French city of Toulouse. He never made it to his destination. Soon after his family made public the nature of his disappearance. ETA released a statement claiming Jon Anza was a member of the armed organization and that the police were well aware of it. In fact he disappeared on his way to a meeting with other members of the organization. ETA claimed that the Spanish police were responsible for his disappearance. Jon Anza had cancer and was almost blind at the time.

The Basque newspaper Gara reported a month ago that following reliable sources Jon Anza was kidnapped by the Spanish police, interrogated and killed and then buried somewhere in France.

Last week the prestigious French newspaper Le Monde published an article about the Jon Anza case. The article breaks the official silence imposed by the Spanish and French governments surrounding the disappearance and brings new information about the investigation.

Among other new aspects the article carries extracts of an interview with the French prosecutor. She says she’s astonished at the lack of evidence found on the case, but despite this she believes the French police are doing their job. The Spanish authorities never informed the French Jon was an ETA member and it caused great surprise to the French police when the armed organization claimed his membership.

According to the article the French had kept some sort of surveillance on Jon but due to his serious illness thought he wasn’t involved in ETA.

During the eight months of his disappearance a huge campaign of demonstrations and protests has been organised and posters with Jon’s face and the question “Where is Jon?” written on it cover the walls across the Basque Country.

At least another four pro-independence activists have been kidnapped, threatened and tortured by police forces during the past 12 months.

Youth unites against repression.

Two weeks ago 36 Basque pro-independence youth activists were arrested in the largest police operation in decades. The Spanish authorities’s objective was to destroy the Basque youth movement. Among those arrested are activists involved in the student movement, youth squatted houses, community radios, Basque culture and language, community festivals, alternative music, feminist groups...

All of them were acussed of being members of the banned pro-independence youth organization Segi and a huge media criminalization campaign surrounded the arrests.

Most of them stated they were tortured, girls were even subjected to sexual abuse and finally 32 were imprisoned. Some of the youth who escaped the police operation were arrested just metres away from the Spanish National Court where they were going to surrend themselves, then taken incommunicado and reported tortures thereafter.

The response was immediate and hundreds of protests took place across the Basque Country. More than 20,000 people took part in a national demonstration in Bilbao organised by the detainees’ relatives.

Last weekend 2,000 people took part in another demonstration organised by the youth movement in Durango during the Basque Book and Album Fair. Dozens of youth groups had previously signed a petition to claim their right to organise against the capitalist system and for Basque freedom. 50 international youth groups showed their support too and some of them took part in the rally. Among them were Ógra Shin Féin representatives. The Irish youth organization also organised solidarity protests over the weekend in Derry, Cork, Fermanagh and Galway. Previously more protests took place in Omagh, Lurgan, Strabane, Limerick, Dungannon, Belfast and Dublin.

Calls for pro-independence unity during the Spanish Constitution Day.

While the Spanish authorities celebrated in Madrid the 31st anniversary of the approval of the Spanish constitution Basque nationalist forces spoke of it as an imposition. In the 1978 referendum the constitution didn’t get the support of the majority of the Basque people and it’s been considered not legitimate in the Basque Country since then.

The Spanish constitution doesn’t recognised the Basque people’s rights like self-determination, declares the unbreakable unity of the state and the ultimate defence of it by the army. The Franco regime’s structures such as the army, judiciary and police remained untouched.

At a press conference organised during the Spanish Constitution Day the Basque Pro-Independence Left said that the asimilation process started in 1978 has failed and that nowadays the majority of Basque political and social force are in favour of a new democratic framework for the Basque Country. Speakers at the press conference said that now it’s time to take new and concrete commitments and to define the way to make that new political situation possible.

Harassment against Basque political prisoners’ relatives increases.

More than 160 visits have been denied to Basque political prisoners’ relatives and friends during the past month. Relatives and friends are being subjected to humilliating searches on their way to visits due to new measures introduced by the Spanish authorities. The relatives are opposing the searches and subesquently they can’t attend visits after travelling for hundreds of miles. There are 598 Basque political prisoners scattered in almost 60 jails in Spain and another 161 prisoners in 25 French jails.

The Basque prisoners have begun different protests to confront the harassment against their relatives such as a communication strike and lock ups in their cells.

3 December 2009

This week's Basque Info radio program now available

Listen to this week's Basque Info with the lastest news and an interview with Iratxe Urizar from Behatokia, the Basque Human Rights Watchdog.

2 December 2009

20,000 people support the youth movement.

In the early hours of Tuesday November 24, 35 Basque pro-independence youth activists were arrested by 950 Spanish policemen in the largest police operation in decades. More than 100 premises were searched and seven more young weren’t in their homes at the time of the raids.

All of them were accused of being members of the leadership of Segi, the banned pro-independence and socialist youth organisation. Similar operations happened in 2001 and 2002 against the alleged leaderships of the youth movement and another 16 operations were carried out over the past two years against local groups of Segi. Hundreds of young people have been arrested, many tortured and most of them imprisoned for solely political work.

Protests were organised across the Basque Country during the week including school strikes. There were also protests in Ireland (Belfast, Dublin, Omagh, Lurgan, Strabane, Dungannon and Limerick).

The largest protest took place last Saturday in Bilbao with 20,430 people in attendance according to the Basque newspaper Gara. The rally was organised by the relatives of those arrested under the slogan “All projects, all rights” and it was supported by many youth groups and four Basque pro-independence parties.

Dozens of young people took to the stage at the end of the march to highlight the fact that all these police operations have been proved to be unable to destroy the Basque youth movement. They also stressed their determination to continue and make the youth movement even broader. In fact, those who took to the stage were taking part along hundreds more in a national weekend of events and discussions in Zestoa.

This was the culmination of months of debates at the local level among different youth groups with the objective of organising a broad front against the capitalist system and in favour of a democratic process in the Basque Country. The arrests obviously come at a very important time for both the youth movement and the Basque Country and are aimed at preventing emerging new political initiatives.

31 out of the 35 youth activists arrested were sent to prison after five days incommunicado. When they were able to see their lawyers in jail most of them reported torture and sexual abuse, mainly against girls. They were beaten on their testicles, forced to do physical exercise, suffocated with plastic bags, deprived of sleep, insulted, humiliated, even threatened with guns at their heads and girls were stripped while being touched and kissed by hooded policemen. There were even rape simulations.

With these last arrests the number of Basque political prisoners is at its highest level in 35 years with 762.

New commitment to support the Basque prisoners’ demands.

Last week Etxerat, the Basque political prisoners’ relatives association, organised a three-day conference to analyse the situation in the prisons. Many trade unions and social organisations took part in the discussions and workshops.

Among other issues they talked about the new measures against the prisoners such as prolonging their sentences and making what are, in effect, life sentences and the control measures they’ll be subjected to once they are released as well as the new search conditions for relatives during visits.

On the last day all the organisations present at the conference decided to sign up to a document which will be the basis to reorganise a movement in favour of the Basque political prisoners. As a first commitment all of them supported the national demonstration called by Etxerat on the 2nd of January.

Another commitment taken by all present was to strengthen the Friday vigils. In fact, thousands of people took part last Friday in around 100 towns in picket lines to support the Basque political prisoners’ rights.

Broad support for indicted councillors.

22 mayors and councillors will be tried in the near future (the date is still unknown) by the Spanish National Court for their work in Udalbiltza, the Basque elected representatives national institution. It was created in 1998 with the objective of the national building of the Basque Country overcoming partition.
The Spanish authorities criminalised their institutional and democratic work and accused them of terrorism.

At a press conference last week dozens of councillors announced they have collected 2,000 signatures of other councillors from different political parties in favour of the Basques’ right to organise their own institutions and against the trial. These signatures will be sent to the United Nations.

Another political trial it’s about to start. On the 14th of December 10 members of the editorial team of Egunkaria will face trial in Madrid’s Spanish National Court. Egunkaria was closed down by the Spanish authorities in 2003 and it was the only Basque language newspaper in the world. The indicted are accused of terrorism and face sentences up to 17 years in jail.

Spanish policeman fakes ETA attack.

A Spanish Guardia Civil was taken to hospital on Sunday morning after shooting himself in one arm. He was out of control for 45 minutes in the nationalist village of Leitza. The pro-Spanish parties and media quickly condemned the alleged ETA attack but soon the news disappeared when the facts behind it emerged. 
A demonstration has been called by the local council to protest against the criminalisation suffered by the village and to demand the occupation forces leave Leitza.