Time 2003

Blaming The Messenger


By James Graff / Andoain / Sunday Mar. 09, 2003


First came the predawn trip, blindfolded in the back of a Spanish paramilitary van, from his home in Tolosa to a police cell in Madrid. It was there, claims Martxelo Otamendi — the last managing editor of the now banned Basque-language daily Egunkaria — that his ordeal began. While police interrogated him about his newspaper’s alleged links to the Basque separatist terror organization ETA, he claims they had him stand naked in his cell for three days, with a chance to sit down only every five hours. Otamendi, 45, says the police humiliated him for his homosexuality, telling him to “take the position I use when my lover and I make love.” On the third day, he says, they gave him the notorious treatment known as la Bolsa — “the bag” — a plastic sack pulled over the head to cause a panic they hoped would compel him to name his ETA contacts. But Otamendi insists he has none. His only relationship with the terrorists, he says, was several interviews conducted years ago. “There’s never been any suggestions from ETA to our paper, no orders, absolutely nothing,” he says. 


Otamendi’s explosive and still unproven story has been vociferously denied by the Spanish government. Nevertheless, the Feb. 20 closure of Egunkaria and the detention of 10 of its managers — five of whom remained in custody last week — have given fresh focus and energy to Basque feelings of martyrdom. A crackdown meant to weaken Basque national solidarity may have done the reverse. 


For decades, just over 50% of the 2 million residents of the Basque region in northeast Spain have wanted greater autonomy from Spain; others are content with the considerable freedom they already enjoy under an autonomous government with its own police force, tax authority, and health and education ministries. The spectrum of opinion stretches from espanolistas who scorn autonomy to the estimated 200 active commandos of ETA (short for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Homeland and Liberty), who vow to end their 35-year terror spree only when the region is independent. 


Egunkaria was the sole daily paper to publish exclusively in the ancient Basque language, and most Basques see its shutdown as an attack on their unique linguistic and cultural heritage. Tens of thousands turned out in San Sebastián to protest the paper’s shutdown, and last week more than 1,000 university journalism students in Bilbao came to hear Otamendi and three other journalists decry the closure. On the other side is the Madrid government of Prime Minister José María Aznar, which regards the shuttering of Egunkaria — like last year’s banning of the political party Batasuna for alleged close ties to ETA — a necessary step in its war on terrorism. No wonder many Basques feel caught between unacceptable terrorism and unacceptable repression. “We’re at a great impasse,” says Gorka Landáburu, a journalist who lost an eye, a thumb and three fingertips to an ETA letterbomb in May 2001. “It has become trench warfare of reprimands and insults.” 


Nowhere is the desperation more palpable than in Andoain, a town on the Leitzaran River south of San Sebastián. Here Egunkaria ran its main office, now sealed after Spanish police impounded documents and computers last month. Less than two weeks before, municipal police chief and vocal ETA opponent Joseba Pagazaurtundua, 48, was gunned down by ETA while reading a newspaper at a local bar. He had been threatened by the terrorists for years, says his sister, Maite, and in 1995 petitioned successfully to be transferred. But in 1999, according to his family, he was forced to go back to Andoain, to be subjected anew to threatening letters, graffiti, and to two of his cars being burned. “My brother knew he was going to die,” says Maite, a former Socialist member of the Basque parliament. “His torture was permanent.” 


So, it might be said, is that of the Basque country. ETA has killed 800 people since 1968; another two dozen were killed in the mid-1980s by the shady, Spanish-government-linked death squads of GAL (Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups). By some measures, the situation has improved since then. The death rate has slowed, and since last August, when Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzón banned Batasuna, the permanent campaign of bus burning and political vandalism has all but evaporated. Says Juan José Ibarretxe, the president of the Basque government: “Basque society has less fear than ever.” 


Not in Andoain. The killing there began in May 2000, when one of Pagazaurtundua’s best friends, newspaper columnist José Luis López de la Calle, was gunned down on a rainy street while picking up the Sunday papers. “There is total fear here — everyone is afraid, they don’t dare to talk in bars and cafés,” says Estanislao Amuchagui, a Socialist town councilor in Andoain. Since it aborted a 14-month cease-fire in November 1999, ETA has broadened its threats to include thousands of judges, journalists, politicians and businessmen, who are under constant guard. “It’s like the hardest days of the Franco dictatorship, when police informers were everywhere,” says Amuchagui. “But now we don’t know who the informers are.” 


No one really believes that banning Egunkaria will curtail the cycle of fear and violence. No specific evidence linking the paper to ETA has been formally aired, but press reports suggest that the government’s case rests largely on several documents, seized in raids on ETA commandos in the early ’90s, in which ETA members expressed preferences for certain editors at the paper. The Madrid daily El País reported last week that the government also had a letter from ETA to a Basque businessman telling him to pay his “revolutionary tax” directly to “a Basque cultural outlet such as Egunkaria.” 


Otamendi and his supporters reject the charge that his paper pursued ETA’s agenda. A subsidy from the Basque government covered one-quarter of the paper’s costs, and the Basque government remains one of the biggest advertisers in the smaller daily, Egunero, that former Egunkaria staffers have put out since the closure from temporary offices in Tolosa. Otamendi says that in the last week of its existence, Egunkaria ran an interview with a leader of the anti-ETA group Basta Ya, and was planning one with a local Socialist politician who opposes ETA. “We think the Basque country should have a right to self-determination,” says Otamendi. “But to say we have a connection with ETA is like saying TIME has one with bin Laden, since you interviewed him.” 


The Basque country believes Aznar’s move is based in a desire to show a hard line on terrorism before his Popular Party faces municipal elections throughout Spain on May 29. “It’s an irresponsible attempt to destabilize institutions of Basque culture,” says Basque president Ibarretxe. “Like many decisions taken by the Spanish government, it will be rejected by Basque society, but accepted as necessary by Spanish society.” Meanwhile, he says he can’t get an appointment to speak with Aznar himself. “He’s mounted on a horse of arrogance, and that’s bad for the Basque people, and ultimately for Spanish society itself.” With his unpopular decision to back the United States in the war on Iraq, Aznar has bigger cod to fry. But the festering Basque conflict is a reminder that peace is no more assured at home than abroad.