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Spain: Parliament Moves To Ban Basque Separatist Party

The Spanish parliament is voting today to ban the radical Basque party Batasuna for its alleged links to the Basque terrorist organization the Basque Fatherland and Liberty group, or ETA. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has said there is no room for such a party in a democratic Spain. But Batasuna is a legal political entity, and its expected ban raises questions of how to preserve human rights while also pursuing terrorists.

Prague, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Spanish parliament today will decide whether to impose a permanent ban on Batasuna, the radical Basque political party alleged to have close links to the Basque terrorist organization ETA.

The measure is supported by the ruling conservative Popular Party and the main opposition Socialists, and its passage through parliament is assured. The measure requests a Supreme Court ruling that would formally ban Batasuna.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said on the weekend that Batasuna will not have "one moment of rest" until it is banned. He said there is no room for "such people" in Spain's democratic life.

In separate legal proceedings against Batasuna today, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon ordered a three-year suspension of the party's activities, accusing it of being part of the armed separatist group ETA. That ban comes into effect immediately.

Batasuna is a legal political party but is alleged to have long-standing ties with ETA. Both of these organizations seek the creation of an independent Basque state, and scores of Batasuna supporters have been arrested over the years on charges of collaborating with ETA. Hundreds of people have died in ETA's campaign over the last 35 years. They include policemen and politicians, as well as civilians killed in indiscriminate bomb explosions.

Batasuna denies links with ETA and says a ban will infringe upon the rights of the Basque people. The party took about 10 percent of the vote in regional elections last year and holds many seats in local councils. Another legal party, the mainstream Basque National Party, which is in government in the Basque region, last week suggested it would adopt more radical pro-autonomy positions if Batasuna is suppressed.

Batasuna has said it will retaliate for any ban through street protests, and ETA has threatened to act against those political parties that support today's ban. The Spanish authorities are said to be bracing for fresh violence. As Spanish commentator Bosco Esteruelas of the leading daily "El Pais" put it: "That is the $1 million question, [whether] the banning of Batasuna will provoke more violence. Well, it's hard to say. There are people in the Basque country, especially those in the leading political party, the Basque National Party, which is in the [regional] government, who say exactly that: that the banning of Batasuna is going to provoke more violence. I guess that, in the short run, probably that's correct."

Esteruelas said the initial impact of the ban will probably be to force many present Batasuna members underground. But he said that in the long run, suppression is justified. "Once you are in society, you have to comply with rules. If you are driving in the street with no [regard for] speed limits, with no respect for anybody, I think somebody has to stop you. This is the current situation. Many people from Batasuna are involved openly or half openly with ETA activities," Esteruelas said.

The government is planning to use as a main basis for its ban the fact that Batasuna has not condemned previous violent actions claimed by ETA. But legal experts differ on whether those grounds are sufficient. Theoretically, the Supreme Court could overturn the government's move on the grounds that it infringes on the democratic rights of those among the Basque population who voted for Batasuna.

Josuba Alvarez, a spokesman for Batasuna in San Sebastian, said, "The decision to consider the possibility that 900 elected officials -- a political force that represents the same or a little bit more than the Socialist party -- are suspended and cannot run for office means that a great part of the Basque society doesn't have the right to express itself politically," Alvarez said.

The government ban would rest on strict new laws against terrorism enacted in June that are themselves controversial in terms of human rights considerations.

Elsewhere in Europe, at least one party with links to violence is politically tolerated, and is even part of the government process. Sinn Fein, the legal arm of the Irish terrorist group the IRA (Irish Republican Army), took seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi has even compared the separatist conflict in the Basque country with the so-called "troubles" in Northern Ireland, saying Batasuna could perform a role similar to Sinn Fein by mediating between government and armed militants.

One thing appears certain, that the vast majority of Spaniards are sick of ETA's continuing campaign of violence, including a car bombing earlier on 4 August in the seaside resort of Santa Pola that killed two people, including a 6-year-old girl. That's proven by the vast turnout of citizens in the streets calling for an end to the bloodletting after each ETA attack.

(RFE/RL's Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)