Basque trial puts political rivals in the dock

correspondents in Madrid – Spain’s Basque Country is primed for an historic trial against several high-profile politicians – among them the region's president, Juan José Ibarretxe (pictured) – who stand accused of links with the banned political movement Batasuna.


Pursuing the action are victims of the terrorist Basque group ETA. The victims, who dub the defendants “birds of a feather”, are represented by two conservative-leaning associations.


During the trial, which will be held in Bilbao and run until the end of the month, election rivals Ibarretxe (a moderate nationalist), and Patxi Lopez (the region's Socialist leader), will take the dock alongside five members of Batasuna, the political arm of ETA.


Ibarretxe and Lopez each stand accused of holding meetings in 2006 with members of Batasuna, which was outlawed by the High Court in 2003. The Batasuna members are in turn charged with continuing to act as representatives of an illegal party.


With regional elections looming on March 1, the trial is unprecedented for two reasons: it’s the first time a lehendakari – the president of the region – has been taken to court on a criminal charge; and it's the first time that leaders of institutional parties have been charged in the same trial as followers of radical Basque separatism.


Though Ibarretxe and Lopez don't stand to suffer much from a judicial point of view, the symbolic weight of the proceedings may have political repercussions. Even the prosecutor says the charges should be dropped: the meetings between Ibarretxe’s PNV, the Socialist party and Batasuna took place during the ETA ceasefire and at a time when the current Spanish government was itself holding negotiations with the Basque terrorist group.


Despite this, Ibarretxe and Lopez will certainly be staking part of their political future on the outcome. Both are running for presidency in the Basque regional elections. The trial comes at a tricky time for Ibarretxe, whose popularity has been weakened by his failed attempt to mount a referendum on Basque autonomy in 2008.


The court proceedings are already providing fodder for the campaign run-up. For meeting with Batasuna, the prosecuting civil parties are seeking a prison term of several years for both Ibarretxe and Lopez.


In his blog, Socialist leader Lopez has pledged to run for the presidency to build a “Basque government that would do a lot more to end ETA terrorism … and which would work to de-legitimise terrorism from the ethical and social points of view”.


The conservative Popular Party, the only major political force not in the dock, is looking to benefit from the trial, branding itself the party of “change”.


The vice-president of the victims association Foro Ermua, Inma Castilla de Cortazar, told France 24 the trial “sends a clear signal that politicians are not above the courts and that the Basque Country has not become a lawless enclave”.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning