Regardless of what charges people may stand accused
of, it is instinctive for many former republican
prisoners to immediately sympathise with them
when they are on hunger strike. Reason, if it
kicks in at all, comes long after the event. Experience
has left us carrying an attitude that runs so
deep it could almost be mistaken as congenital;
as a rule the prisoners are to be backed against
was the position I readily adopted yesterday on
being asked to take part in a BBC World Service
discussion around the topic of the ETA prisoner,
Iñaki de Juana Chaos. He had been on a
prolonged hunger strike in a Spanish prison but
as his condition grew critical he was transferred
from the Spanish capital Madrid to a hospital
in the Basque city of Donostia. There was little
to think about in advance. Not always a recommended
course of action, I nevertheless committed myself
to defending him without actually exploring the
issues. There seemed no need to. A political prisoner
on hunger strike constituted understanding enough.
reflections on the matter came as I sat alongside
my father-in-law in a BBC studio in Belfast waiting
to be interviewed. Ironically, the World Service
discussion on de Juana was preceded by a much
longer debate around the issue of obesity in children.
Gluttony and starvation were the contrasting themes
that weaved their way through the evening's exchanges.
On the one hand the case was being made that parents
who allow their kids to gorge on food should be
imprisoned for child abuse; on the other the argument
took the form that a man should be released from
the confines of imprisonment because he was starving
himself to death.
de Juana Chaos is an ETA member. Said to have
killed over 800 people in forty years of its armed
struggle, the Basque guerrilla group has provoked
a fury within the Spanish populace to a degree
not induced by the IRA from the British despite
the atrocities the organisation at times inflicted
on an English civilian population. With protestors
taking to the streets - as high as 2.5 million
depending on who is guesstimating - in opposition
to the government dealing with ETA, the angry
spirit of 'crispacion' has Spaniards in its grip.
Commenting on the tension surrounding the marches
Basque Socialist leader, Patxi Lopez, compared
it to the weeks immediately preceding the 1981
coup attempt when civil guards stormed the country's
parliament. For many Spaniards the ETA issue has
become a symbol of everything they perceive as
wrong in Spanish society and it raises few eyebrows
that one of the demands of the protestors was
that de Juana be returned to jail from the house
arrest concession he was promised as a result
of his hunger strike.
51 year old was jailed 1987 for 3,000 years for
his part in 25 deaths, most of them military personnel.
Under Spanish law he would serve a maximum of
18 years. The Spanish Government in a bid to block
de Juana's pending release dug out two opinion
pieces he had written for a Basque newspaper.
In these the government claimed there was enough
material to prosecute him for making threats of
terrorism. In a clear bid to undermine the autonomy
of the Spanish judicial system Justice Minister
Juan Fernando López Aguilar undertook to
introduce new legislation to prevent the release
of ETA prisoners, promising to do "whatever
is in our power to prevent these releases."
Which meant against ETA prisoners the government
would "construct new charges like we did
with de Juana Chaos".
de Juana this political subversion of the judicial
system led to a sentence of
12 years and 7 months in jail. The Association
of European Democratic Lawyers said that the sentence
was "an exceptional resolution of extraordinary
harshness". While the Spanish Supreme Court
cut this sentence to 3 years - in opposition to
the relatives of ETA's victims who sought it to
have it increased to 96 years - de Juana already
on hunger strike vowed to continue with his fast.
"The only acceptable alternative is complete
liberty and an end to the brutal attacks on freedom
of expression that this legal process implies."
When de Juana promotes free speech, this causes
a jaundiced eye to be cast towards the activities
of the group to which he belonged. In its day
ETA blatantly disregarded the opinions of others
and instigated 'brutal attacks on freedom of expression'
when it murdered one of its own leading lights,
María Dolores Katarain, aka Yoyes, for
dissenting from armed struggle, and also assassinated
José Luis López de Lacalle, a Spanish
journalist critical of the group.
although a ruse devised solely for the purpose
of extending his detention, the prison sentence
that led to the de Juana hunger strike was formally
imposed for writing articles in a newspaper and
on no other legal grounds. In an effort to subvert
deeper public understanding of the broader issues,
Spanish conservatives responded with rage to an
interview conducted with him for the Times in
double standards abound on the Spanish right.
Never able to reconcile itself to the loss of
Franco and the collapse of fascism its attitude
to those who sought to re-impose military rule
is much more emollient. The civil guard officer
who led the coup in 1981, Lieutenant Colonel Antonio
Tejero Molina, has long been released from custody
and pens letters to the Spanish press on political
issues that get under his skin. No sign yet of
mass protests being organised demanding that this
bane of democracy be returned to prison.
de Juana Chaos has since ended his hunger strike
and is undergoing hospital treatment. He will
continue to be held under house arrest in Basque
country. While much more conciliatory than jailing
him for a further 12 years, it remains both an
injustice and a defence of political censorship.
He should be released and allowed to write as
he pleases without the threat of imprisonment
hanging over his head. Any decision to continue
holding him is based on the opinions he expressed
and not the armed activities he engaged in.