On terrorism, Basque nationalism and a ‘bar brawl’

Why are eight Basques facing a total of 375 years in jail on terrorism charges for a ‘bar fight’?

Altsasu gurasoak Twitter
Defendants' parents recently addressed local crowds at a crowded plaza in Altsasu to reiterate that their children are not terrorists. [Altsasu Gurasoak/Twitter]

Altsasu, a sleepy Basque town in Spain‘s northernmost province of Navarre, was shocked on July 4, when a prosecutor’s office announced (PDF) that eight of its residents will be facing a total of 375 years in prison on terrorism charges. The eight young Basques had a fight with two civil guards and their girlfriends in a local bar in the early hours of October 15, 2016. Three of the defendants have been under arrest since November 2016.

The eight young men and a woman are facing charges of “terrorist injury” and “terrorist threat” for being involved in what many activists consider a simple “bar brawl”, possibly motivated by historical tensions between Basque nationalists and the Civil Guard.

The Civil Guard is a Spanish military force charged with police duties under the authority of both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. The force is believed to be responsible for torturing Basque nationalists – and many others – during and even after the Franco dictatorship.

Altsasu is a small, Basque-speaking town with a little more than 7,500 inhabitants. Basque nationalist groups have an absolute majority in the city’s government. The presence of the Civil Guard in the city has long been a subject of tensions and conflicts. For example, in 2015, Civil Guard agents banned three floats from participating at Ospa Eguna, a local parade that calls for the Civil Guard to leave the city. The banned floats were depicting civil guards as monsters and torturers, in an attempt to ridicule the powerful organisation. 

Assault cases involving Basque youths and members of the Civil Guard are also not uncommon in Altsasu; however, these cases have never been treated as “terrorism” before. What is more, the prosecution’s decision to request such a severe punishment came just three months after the Basque Separatist Group ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty) announced that it intended to disarm.

So why the severity of the punishment requested? 

‘Everything is ETA’

According to the Civil Guard and a considerable number of conservative Spanish newspapers, anyone who demands the withdrawal of the guards from Altsasu, including the eight young Basques involved in last year’s “bar brawl”, are part of the “ETA environment”.

According to human rights activists, however, such accusations are nothing more than an extension of the Spanish judiciary and government’s controversial theory dubbed “everything is ETA“.

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Spanish authorities have long been inclined to associate every Basque nationalist movement – or any criticism of the government’s treatment of the Basque community – with the armed separatist group ETA. They have long been branding journalists, human rights activists and anyone who is supporting the Basque Country independence movement as ETA members or supporters.

ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a five-decade campaign of shootings and bombings for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France. However, the armed group, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by both Spain and France, has been inactive for over six years and it has officially laid down arms earlier in April. Yet, the Spanish and French governments still refuse to negotiate with ETA, even though an international group of political leaders and Nobel laureates are trying to convince these governments to open talks with the group and officially end the conflict.

A bar fight or a “terror incident” 

It is important to note that none of the accused in Altsasu deny that the fight took place. What is in dispute here is whether a simple bar fight can be considered “terrorism”.

According to the official version of the events, at least 50 people participated in the “violent action” against the Civil Guard – something local residents deny – and the fight was motivated by the “poison” of ETA. Locals, on the other hand, accuse the Civil Guard of provoking the incident. They say guards are constantly seeking confrontation and provoking the local youth.

According to Spanish news outlets, the prosecutor in the case maintains that the fight was part of a historical ETA campaign against agents of the Civil Guard deployed in Navarre province, called “Alde Hemendik” (Get out of here). But some question the claim that “Alde Hemendik” – the slogan and the protest movement that utilises it – has ties to ETA.

A politician from the Basque nationalist coalition EH Bildu, Jonathan Martinez, in a series of tweets, sought to remind the public of the actual story behind the expression “Get out of here”.

He explained that this slogan was used for the first time in the Basque city of Errenteria by people protesting the death of Joseba Barandiaran in the late 1970s. Police officers shot and killed Barandiaran, a young Basque nationalist, during a demonstration provoked by another police killing. Over the years the slogan “Alde Hemendik” was used frequently in other Basque cities, including Atlsasu, to protest police presence and oppression. 

The prosecutor’s office is trying to link this decades-old expression of defiance and what appears to be a simple bar fight – in which the worst injury was a broken ankle – with a terrorist group/movement that already laid down arms and is seeking to become a legal political party.

Both the regional government of Navarre and the city council of Altsasu have already rejected the “terrorism” charges eight young Basques are facing. The provincial court also decided that the “bar fight” between the defendants and the members of the Civil Guard did not amount to “terrorism” and insisted that the case should be conducted locally. But the Spanish National Court chose to override the decisions of local authorities and charged the defendants with offences related to “terrorism” anyway.

The defendants’ parents recently addressed local crowds at a crowded plaza in Altsasu to reiterate that their children are not terrorists. They argued that a “petition for 375 years in prison for eight young people, seven under 23, for a bar brawl in which the biggest injury was a broken ankle” was disproportionate and that “such disproportion produces terror”.

Parents of the accused also travelled to Brussels to make their children’s plight heard in the EU and they immediately received support from 51 MEPs from 15 countries who called for “proportionality, justice and equity” for the defendants.

By accusing these young people of participating in “terrorist” activities, the Spanish government is refuelling a decade-old conflict that in recent years had started to quiet down. The memories of the Civil Guard’s historic crimes against the Basque people – and their collaboration with a dictatorship that killed and tortured Basque nationalists – are still fresh in the minds of Altsasu residents. 

If the Spanish government is interested in bringing peace and harmony to the Basque Country, it needs to understand the new Basque generation and stir away from branding its sentiments as “terrorism”.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist and a PhD candidate in human rights at the University of Deusto in Spain.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.