Basque separatist denied bail in Northern Ireland

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A judge in Northern Ireland refused bail Monday to a suspected member of the armed Basque separatist group ETA wanted in Spain over several attacks, his lawyer said.

Fermin Vila Michelena, 40, was considered a flight risk because he holds identity documents in another name and so will remain in custody, lawyer Niall Murphy told AFP after the court hearing in Belfast.

The suspect was arrested here on June 24 in a joint operation between local and Spanish police, but "our client has instructed us to vigorously contest the European arrest warrant" against him, Murphy said.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, Vila Michelena claimed he was a "political refugee" and was arrested because of his support for an independent Basque homeland carved out from northern Spain and southwest France.

"I am proud to have lived my life as a Basque pro-independence activist and now regret that I am to be imprisoned as a political refugee," he said.

Vila Michelena is the subject of two European and one Spanish arrest warrants and has been on a European Union list of terror suspects since December 2001.

The interior ministry alleges that in 2001 he was part of ETA's Madrid cell which carried out four car bomb attacks, one of which killed a senior army officer and a policeman. He then fled to France.

Murphy said his client had been a high profile candidate for the radical Basque separatist Herri Batasuna party, which was banned in Spain in 2003 over its links to ETA, and was now being "persecuted".

"Our client considers that he is being persecuted for his political beliefs and he fears that he will be tortured by the Spanish authorities if he is returned to their jurisdiction," the lawyer said.

In his statement, Vila Michelena said the peace process in British-controlled Northern Ireland should "serve as a lesson" to solving the issue of Basque independence, for which ETA has been fighting a bloody war for four decades.

"I call on the international community to assist and support a democratic inclusive political process," he said.

Vila Michelena added: "I would like to send my greetings to the Basque pro-independence movement and look forward to the establishment of an independent Basque state."

© 2010 AFP

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