Outcry in Spain over public TV interview of ex-ETA member

Madrid (AFP) –


An interview on Spain's public television with a Basque independence leader formerly part of the ETA separatist group caused an outcry Thursday, pitting victims and right-wing parties against free speech defenders.

Arnaldo Otegi cuts a controversial figure in Spain, where many feel his past involvement with the armed group that killed at least 853 people during its campaign for Basque independence is unforgivable.

He has also been credited with helping to move ETA away from violence and is now the head of a legal pro-independence coalition, EH Bildu, which has four lawmakers in the national parliament.

On Wednesday evening, in an unusual move in a country where wounds left by the separatist group are still raw -- even after it disbanded last year -- the 60-year-old was interviewed on Spain's public television channel TVE.

Otegi, who spent 15 intermittent years behind bars, refused to condemn the violence of ETA but said EH Bildu would take part in a minute of silence in parliament on Thursday in memory of the victims.

He apologised on behalf of the pro-independence movement in the northern Basque Country if "we generated more pain for the victims than was necessary or than we had the right to."

Right-wing parties slammed his comments and the interview in general.

"You didn't have any right to kill, torture and harass democrats," tweeted Albert Rivera, head of the centre-right Ciudadanos party.

He called for the channel director to resign, as did the conservative Popular Party, accusing Spain's public television of seeking to "whitewash" Otegi.

Journalists lept to the defence of Spain's RTVE public radio and television corporation.

Xabier Fortes, a TVE presenter, expressed his support for colleagues "who are being lynched for fulfilling their duty, interviewing the political leaders of all 'legal' parties, whether we like or loathe them."

"It's called journalism. The opposite is called censorship," he tweeted.

Otegi spent time in prison for an ETA kidnapping and later for trying to resurrect Batasuna, a pro-independence party widely seen as the armed group's banned political wing.

In the 1990sn he became one of the first ETA members to call for disarmament, earning him comparisons to Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams, the former head of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In 2006, Otegi was one of the main architects of peace negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government, which broke down.