Basque leaders go on trial ahead of regional elections

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However, the Basque Nationalist Party head and regional Socialist Party leader are not likely to be convicted as prosecutors have called for charges to be dropped.

BILBAO – The head of the Basque government and his chief opponent went on trial on Thursday over past contacts with the political wing of the armed separatist group ETA, just weeks before they are to face off in regional elections.

Juan Jose Ibarretxe, head of the governing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and Patxi Lopez, regional leader of Spain's ruling Socialist Party, face possible prison terms and bans on political activity if found guilty.

But they are not expected to be convicted as prosecutors have called for the charges to be dropped.

In ordering the trial in October 2007, Judge Roberto Saiz of the Basque superior court said he saw no reason to follow the prosecutors' recommendations.

Ibarretxe and Lopez, along with another senior member of the Basque branch of the Socialist Party, Rodolfo Ares, are accused of repeatedly meeting leaders of Batasuna, ETA's political wing, as the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was conducting tentative negotiations with the separatist group in 2006.

Batasuna has been outlawed since 2003 for refusing to condemn violence and cut its links to ETA, which has killed 825 people in a 40-year-old campaign for an independent Basque homeland.

Five senior members of Batasuna, including veteran Arnaldo Otegi, are also on trial for disobeying the court order to disband.

All three politicians have admitted contacts with Batasuna, but as part of moves to push forward the peace process.

At a preliminary hearing last year, Ibarretxe said he had promised Basque citizens he would "talk to everyone" to find a solution to the Basque problem.

Ibarretxe last week announced regional elections for 1 March, in which he is hoping to secure a fourth successive mandate.

But opinion polls indicate his PNV, which has governed the region since 1980, is at risk of defeat to the Socialists, led by Lopez.

Among witnesses expected to make statements at the trial are Zapatero, who could be asked to respond to questions from the court in writing, and his two predecessors, Jose Maria Aznar and Felipe Gonzalez.

Zapatero tried unsuccessfully to resolve the Basque problem in 2006. But he has taken a hard line against the separatists since ETA called off a 15-month-old ceasefire in June, 2007, and has repeatedly ruled out any new negotiations.

The trial, which is expected to last three weeks, is the result of complaints filed by two associations opposed to talks with ETA, the Forum Ermua and Dignity and Justice.

All eight defendants - the three politicians and five Batasuna members - were in court as the trial opened with procedural matters.

[AFP / Expatica]

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