MADRID – Tens of thousands of protesters in Spain’s Basque region defied Madrid on Saturday night by holding a mass demonstration marked by tensions over jailed members of the armed separatist group ETA.
Crowds filled the streets in the northern city of Bilbao in a march for “human rights, understanding and peace,” after a judge banned another demonstration planned to demand concessions for the Basque prisoners.
The treatment of imprisoned ETA convicts is one of the most delicate issues in a standoff between the authorities and western Europe’s last major armed secessionist movement.
Organizers had called for a silent demo but cries of “Basque prisoners home!” rang out and demonstrators applauded prisoners’ family members who marched with white scarves around their necks.
ETA is blamed for 829 killings in its four-decade campaign for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.
Sensitivities flared last month when prisoners’ groups pushed for concessions from authorities, outraging victims’ families.
A judge at Madrid’s top criminal court Friday issued a ruling prohibiting a demonstration that was called explicitly in support of the prisoners, saying it was organized by a banned group. Basque nationalist and separatist political parties then weighed in, calling the new “rights” march Saturday evening.
They called for jailed ETA members to be moved to prisons closer to their families.
One of them, Itziar Goienetxia, 52, said she lived in the Basque country and had to travel 1,200 km there and back for a 40-minute visit to her husband in jail in the southern town of Cadiz. “It’s a double sentence” that affects her as well as her husband, she said.
The conservative Basque National Party, which governs the region, and a left-wing pro-independence grouping joined forces in calling Saturday’s march, in a rare joint show of strength. Between them they accounted for more than half of the votes in the last regional elections, as pro-independence Basques set their sights on a political solution.
“Parties and unions that represent the political majority of this land decided they had to call this demonstration to defend the right to freedom of expression,” Pernando Barrena, spokesman for the left-wing Sortu party, said.
The spokesman for the regional government, Josu Erkoreka, earlier said the ban on the original demo was “incomprehensible to the Basque people.”
The victims’ association AVT applied to have the new demonstration banned too, saying in a statement that it gave “grave offense to each and every victim of terrorism. . . . The only aim of the initiative is to pay homage to prisoners of the terrorist group ETA.”
A judge Saturday ruled that the new gathering called by the parties was not illegal, however, a court source said.
Spanish and French leaders refuse to negotiate with ETA, which is branded a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. The group has been weakened in recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders in Spain and France. In 2011, it declared an “end to armed activity” but refused to formally disband.
Groups supporting the prisoners say there are about 520 inmates who remain affiliated to ETA, most of them dispersed in jails around Spain and France. Only a few dozen active militants are estimated to be still at large.