Basque leader freed from Spanish jail, vows push for peace

1st March 2016, Comments 0 comments

A veteran Basque leader and former member of the armed separatist group ETA credited with helping end violence in the northern Spanish region vowed Tuesday to keep pushing for peace after he was released from jail.

Arnaldo Otegi, 57, was met by about 200 supporters -- many waving red, white and green Basque flags -- as he left the prison in the northern city of Logrono.

He was freed after serving six and a half years for trying to resurrect the outlawed separatist party Batasuna.

"Some say there are no political prisoners in the Spanish state. But there would not be so many media here today if it wasn't for the fact that today a political prisoner left a Spanish jail," he said.

"Peace is the path to follow and it is what I propose to do with you," he added as his supporters chanted "Independence!"

Batasuna was banned in 2003 for being the "political wing" of ETA, which is blamed for over 820 killings in its campaign of bombings and shootings to create an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.

It re-emerged as a legal pro-independence party, Sortu, which campaigns for independence through democratic means.

Otegi was elected Sortu's secretary general while behind bars in 2013. As a convict, he will not be eligible to run for office until 2022, although he may challenge this in court.

Otegi told the New York Times in a written statement from prison that he aims to become the next leader of Spain's Basque Country, which will hold regional elections at the end of the year.

He added he will run in March for internal elections to choose candidates for EH Bildu, a pro-independence coalition party.

The Basque separatist movement hopes Otegi's clout will help revive its fortunes at time when it faces a stiff challenge from new far-left party Podemos, which gained the most votes in the region in national elections in December.

- 'Indignation' -

Hundreds of people gathered in a square in Otegi's hometown Elgoaibar to celebrate his release and hear him speak on Tuesday evening.

While some hail Otegi as a hero, for others -- especially relatives of ETA victims -- he remains a hate figure.

The Association of Victims of Terrorism, formed mainly of ETA victims, said on Twitter that it felt "indignation" at the sight of "an ETA terrorist being given a hero's welcome".

Interior Minister Fernando Diaz also said he was "deeply upset" that Otegi had been welcomed by crowds as "a man of peace" after he left jail.

"A man of peace does not kidnap people as he did," he added.

- A Basque Gerry Adams -

An active ETA member since the age of 19, Otegi has spent 15 year behind bars -- including for the 1979 kidnapping of a factory director in Vitoria, northern Spain.

But in the 1990s he also became one of the first ETA members to call for disarmament, earning him comparisons to Gerry Adams, whose Sinn Fein party was once seen as the political voice of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In 2006-2007, Otegi was one of the main architects of peace negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government.

The talks broke down after a bombing at Madrid airport in December 2006 that left two dead, an attack carried out by ETA militants opposed to disarmament.

The government then adopted a hard line against ETA, arresting dozens of people with links to the outfit, including Otegi.

In 2011 he was sentenced to ten years in jail for trying to revive Batasuna.

"The sentence was unjust and disproportionate, even jurists said so, as he had for a long time advocated for peace and the end of violence," journalist and Basque specialist Gorka Landaburu, who lost the use of an eye to an ETA letter bomb in 2002, told AFP.

The following month a weakened ETA declared a "definitive end to armed activity".

ETA has yet to formally disband or disarm although its last deadly attack on Spanish territory was in August 2009.

© 2016 AFP

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