Dé Luain, Meitheamh 21, 2010

Repression and Resistance in the Basque Country: The youth lead the way



You can’t blame the Youth – the classic song of Reggae legend Peter Tosh – readily comes to mind when considering the inspiring struggle of the Basque youth movement. It is a momentous story of perseverance and resistance to decades of repression.

The Basque youth movement, comprising young separatists and socialists, is one that will not be blamed; no matter what the provocation, they continue their activism and remain a popular expression of the desires of Basque youth. They have not been fooled either and, while many look to accommodate themselves with the Spanish occupation, the Basque youth movement maintains a strong demand for an independent and socialist Basque Country.

The history of the movement dates back to the founding of Jarrai in 1979, a youth organisation for those who supported Basque independence and socialism. In 2000, following Jarrai’s amalgamation with Gazteriak, based in the French-occupied Basque Country, a new movement emerged under the name of Haika. Not longer after its establishment, however, the Spanish state banned Haika and arrested its leadership. In order to maintain the movement, activists replaced Haika and formed Segi, meaning ‘To Continue’. Segi, in turn, was banned and eventually, with European Union approval, all three groups were designated “terrorist organisations”.

So how did these so-called terrorists respond to this naked repression by the Spanish state? Over the years, the organisations developed from a small cadre of activists into a popular movement. In 1994, Jarrai launched its Gazte Topagunea or Youth Encounter, a festival organised at Easter where large numbers of youth gathered and participated in a wide range of activities, including rock concerts, traditional Basque culture, theatre, sport, cinema, lectures and distribution of political literature.

In turn, Haika and Segi organised the Youth Encounter and, in 2006, the event returned to Etxarri, a small village in the north of the Basque Country, where 20,000 attended under the slogan Tipi-tapa independentzian topa! – meaning ‘Step by step meet in independence!’ This bi-annual event was organised in 2008 and again this year when, despite widespread repression by the Spanish state, almost 10,000 young people participated, demonstrating the widely popular nature of the demand for independence.

2006 Youth Encounter

In the alternate years between the Youth Encounters, a march through the mountains is organised at Easter, attracting up to 3,000 activists, who, as well as experiencing the breathtaking Basque countryside, engage in nightly political discussions. Alongside these national events, the Basque youth groups campaign on a wide range of political issues and employ a wide spectrum of political campaign activity, with posters, leaflets, stickers, pickets, concerts and direct action all being utilised.

National campaigns have included support for political prisoners, promoting the Basque language, opposing state repression of political activists and popularising socialism. These issues were augmented by campaigning specifically on youth issues such as employment rights, school facilities and rent controls. All of this political campaign work is, of course, defined as “terrorist” activity by both the Spanish and French states, who are concerned that the Basque youth are mobilised and gaining significant support for their demand of self-determination.

The hounding of the leadership of Jarrai/Haika/Segi began in 2001. To date, over 40 people have been indicted and charged with serious offences linking these three organisations to ETA. It seems that the Spanish government considers mobilising for independence to be illegal. The targeting of the youth organisations has not been isolated; language activists, lawyers, journalists and publishers among others have all found that their activities considered illegal and many face long jail terms. There can, on occasion, be a surreal aspect to the attacks by the Spanish state. In May 2006, while campaigning throughout Basque Country in favour of a ‘peace process’, thousands of young Segi activists were viciously attacked by police, with many badly injured and many more arrested.

The actions of the police stretched to arrests for pasting posters or handing out leaflets. That these activities are labelled as “terrorist acts” may seem out of step with European Union ‘norms’, until you scratch under the surface in Ireland and other countries suffering from occupation. The success of Jarrai, Haika and Segi in mobilising a popular youth movement in support of Basque independence has profoundly scared the Spanish state: repression is its response. What is described here accounts for only a small portion of the daily attacks on Basque youth, an experience that involves torture, imprisonment, assault, kidnapping, surveillance and harassment.

Basque activist being arrested

In early November 2007, seven activists were arrested in Donostia, which marked the third police operation against Segi, bringing to 18 the number arrested in the autumn of that year. It was evident that the state was intent on imprisoning all of those who opposed it. The reaction of the youth in Donostia was swift, with a demonstration of 1,000 people the day after the arrests and 1,500 on the Saturday following. Barricades were built throughout the city demonstrating that the youth of the city were as determined as ever. Seven days after their arrest, the activists continued to be held in communicado with no contact with relatives or lawyers. When finally contacted, all reported brutal attacks by police interrogators.

In the last week of November ’07, the attack against Segi intensified. Seven young people were arrested in Burlata near Irunea and over a dozen premises searched. Computers and documents were seized during the searches and, very quickly, the corporate media was reporting that the seven were guilty of a total of 32 charges in relation to rioting, attacking bank premises and assaulting police. During their Spanish Special Court hearing, held in Madrid, the seven accused outlined the torture they suffered at the hands of the police – one method involved partial suffocation by placing a plastic bag over their heads. Following the arrests, the youth of Burlata mobilised and demonstrated on the streets. The protest was attacked by the police and 10 youths were arrested [four of whom were under the age of 18] and all were charged with offences ranging from vandalism to assaulting police officers.

Less than two weeks later, 15 more young Segi activists from Donostia were in custody. Eight of these were imprisoned, while the rest had to provide bail of €6,000. Following a short seasonal break for the forces of injustice, they swung back into action in the last week of January 2008, smashing in the doors of youth activists across the Basque Country. In numerous raids, eight activists were arrested and imprisoned. The following month, another six youths were arrested in Gazteiz.

After a break of two months, the towns of Oiartzun and Orereta became the latest locations for a renewed attack on the right to campaign according to your political preference. Ten youths were arrested and, in response, thousands of locals came onto the streets in protest at yet another act of political repression. Once again, the police attacked demonstrators, some of whom were savagely beaten and at least three were arrested. The police kept a large presence in the town throughout the following week and, in addition to the arrests, over 30 houses were raided and searched.

In another example of the lengths the state has been prepared to go to shut down political activity, another six Segi activists were arrested in November 2008 and three were charged with “collaboration with an armed organisation”. This charge related to the “subversive” action of putting up posters, not the first time a bucket of paste and brush have been mistaken for deadly weapons. Clearly Segi’s arsenal appears very threatening to the state because, within months, another five of the organisation’s activists were arrested for distributing leaflets.

Rally in Donostia in 2009

For over a year appeared relatively quiet until late 2009 when over 900 police officers took part in a massive operation against Segi. Over 100 premises were raided and 36 people arrested. After five days held without contact with the outside world, the activists were charged. The reports from the interrogations were shocking: in addition to suffocation, forced exercises and assaults, female activists were sexually assaulted by masked interrogators and male activists had their testicles beaten repeatedly, while guns were used to threaten those under interrogation. As news emerged of the arrests and torture, massive demonstrations were organised. Over 20,000 mobilised in Donostia alone, demonstrating that Segi and the Basque people would not lie down in the face of state repression.

Since 2001, over 200 youth activists have been arrested and imprisoned. The thousands who continue to take to the streets will continue the struggle.

Repression is not restricted to the Spanish occupied Basque Country, three of the Basque Countries seven provinces are occupied by France. Traditionally, this area was a place where activists could feel relatively safe from persecution but, from the late 1980s, the situation became more hostile. Cooperation between both states is now so close that it is not unusual to find Spanish police operating alongside French police. The position of Basque youth at the hands of the French state is almost as perilous as the Spanish state.

In early 2006, while moves were being advanced in relation to a peace initiative, the French police arrested three young people for their political activities. At the time, this along with attacks by Spanish police was identified as a deliberate attempt to provoke Basque activists and to distract them from their political programme. In November 2007, Gorka Betolaza was back in Spanish custody having being extradited by French authorities and faced the prospect of completing his sentence of six years for being a member of Segi.

A month later, in December, another two youth activists were extradited to face charges in Spain. Asier Tapia faced charges as a result of taking part in a press conference for Haika and Spanish prosecutors requested a sentence of 100 years. The other youth, Gorka Urberuaga, was charged with spraying graffiti. The French authorities clearly had no problem with this modern day Spanish inquisition.

In 2009 the French police continued to demonstrate their commitment to mirror Spanish repression. The French arrested eight young Basques and charged them with taking part in acts of sabotage. Seven were released within a few hours, while one was taken to prison to await extradition to Spain. Upon their release, the seven activists outlined that, during questioning, there was no reference to acts of sabotage; rather, they were questioned solely about political activism. In early 2010, another eight activists were arrested and charged with attacks on the offices of estate agents in the French occupied zone. Hundreds took to the streets to protest and so the cycle continues.

While these attacks are directed specifically at Segi as an organisation, they are not restricted to Segi alone. Popular websites have been closed down, community activists have been kidnapped and assaulted and young people involved in language groups and festivals have been harassed and arrested. Anything suspect in the eyes of the state is open to attack and repression.

Despite the heavy hand of the state and attempts to close down the political expression of Basque independence and socialism, it is encouraging and inspiring to report that the Basque youth refuse to surrender. Late last month, hundreds of activists paraded in Brussels to bring attention to the repression they have faced and to highlight the existence of the Basque nation. The struggle goes on.

The building of a vibrant and active youth movement in the Basque Country clearly poses a direct challenge to capitalism and imperialism. Both the Spanish and French states have attempted to crush this challenge, that they have failed is a testimony to the determination and commitment of the Basque independence and socialist youth movement.

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