The Idaho Statesman 2003 (III)

Basque journalist tells tale of tortureSpain accuses newspaper of terrorist ties


Edition Date: 03-09-2003 / Gregory Hahn


Some of the English words are hard for Martxelo Otamendi to find. 


They twice put a plastic bag on my head. That was the hardest torture. It doesn´t take very long. It takes two, three seconds, and you feel like you are getting dead. 


There´s a word he doesn´t know — blindfolded. And another — push-up. 


Making me stand up for three days without sleeping. I do a lot of physical exercises. 


The Spanish Guardia Civil kept him incommunicado for five days. 


They treat you like a dog. They think you are a dog. 


The Basque journalist with close ties to Boise was accused two weeks ago of being a spokesman for ETA, the Basque terrorist group. Nine other Basques were arrested at the same time. His newspaper, the last Basque-language paper in Spain, was closed. 


Otamendi claims he was tortured while held in Madrid. He said he is neither a member nor a supporter of ETA, that the Spanish government closed the newspaper to quiet a pro-Basque voice. 


The Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., said a judge, not the government, has found documents that prove the newspaper was run by a company tied to the terrorists. Spain opposes torture, the Embassy said, and Otamendi has a right to report what he says happened, and it will be investigated. The legal process is yet to be played out, the Embassy said, but “a man who is a criminal and speaks Basque is still a criminal.” 


The issues may never be resolved — Basques and the Spanish government have been at odds for generations — but some Boise Basques are reacting emotionally to Otamendi´s account. Many have their own stories of families persecuted, tortured and imprisoned when Spain was a fascist country, from the 1930s to 1975. And like their relatives in Spain, Boise Basques don´t always agree on whether the Basque country should be independent, but many of them, including the vocal Pete Cenarrusa, say they think the Spanish government is still trying to extinguish their language and culture — another accusation the Spanish Embassy denies. 


Some Boise Basques know Otamendi personally. He first spent time here in the 1980s. Most recently, he covered Cenarrusa and state Rep. David Bieter as they convinced the Idaho Legislature last year to approve a statement supporting self-determination for the Basques of northern Spain and southern France. 


Spanish officials and the Bush administration fought that memorial of support. But Idaho has the largest and most politically powerful Basque community in the United States, and many European Basques hope their Amerikanuak relatives will influence the United States to one day back them against the Spanish government in Madrid. 


The situation is all the more delicate now, as the Bush administration braces for war in Iraq with Spain as one of its few allies on the U.N. Security Council. 


Locked in an interrogation room in Madrid 


In those five days, Otamendi said his interrogators stripped him and ridiculed him, the Basque language and its traditions. 


They also asked about that memorial, he said. They accused Otamendi of writing it. Of pushing ETA´s ideas through the Idaho Legislature. 


That plastic bag was held tight around his neck, Otamendi said, and it would fill his mouth immediately when he took a breath. He said the Guardia Civil soldiers told him he should admit his ties to ETA. They told him word for word what to say. 


On the fifth day, he was taken to a judge. 


“I told the judge everything they did to me,” he said in a phone interview this week with The Idaho Statesman. “I was with him longer than 45 minutes. I´m happy with that.” 


A spokesman from the Spanish Embassy, reached Friday while Ambassador Javier Ruperez was in San Antonio, said ETA operatives are told to say they have been tortured whenever they´re arrested. But he said Otamendi´s accusations will be investigated. 


The issue arose in Spanish political circles last week, according to European newspaper reports. When former Barcelona Mayor Pascual Maragall, a top official in the country´s Socialist Party, said he believed Otamendi´s accounts of torture, other Spanish officials accused him of “giving credence” to people who could be connected to ETA. 


The international watchdog group Amnesty International has criticized the Spanish government for the way it has handled some arrests. In a report published last year, the group said it was opposed to incommunicado detention, which can lead to up to five days “during which detainees could not see a lawyer or doctor in whom they had confidence, and could not notify family or friends of their situation or whereabouts, made it far more likely that — in the absence of such visits to provide scrutiny of detainees´ health and situation —torture and ill-treatment could occur.” 


The group also called for “an end to the hooding and/or blindfolding of detainees — a practice alleged in a number of allegations.” 


Otamendi was released after posting bond — the equivalent of about $30,000, he said. His mother paid it. His newspaper, Euskaldunon Egunkaria, was closed down. His private account and that of the newspaper have been frozen, he said. 


The investigating judge will make a determination on Otamendi´s guilt and the newspaper´s fate, and if he is found guilty, a tribunal will sentence him, the Embassy said. 


Otamendi, hesitant to take his old job at the paper that replaced Egunkaria almost as soon as it was closed, is trying to tell his story as loudly as he can. 

“I am not ready to close my mouth,” he said. “I am not ready to not speak, to shut up. It´s a matter of dignity.” 


In Boise, Basques react with shock and anger 


“It just hurt me badly to see how he´s treated and how others are treated and tortured,” said Cenarrusa, former Idaho secretary of state, who was at his winter home on the Colorado River south of Lake Havasu, Ariz. 


He and Bieter deny that Otamendi had anything to do with the drafting of the House memorial last year. 


Bieter said he himself brought a stack of notes, articles and drafts to Legislative Services. Otamendi was here to cover the decision, he said. 


Others, too, are outraged. 


“It seems to me like someone from the Associated Press interviewing someone in al-Qaida and then being arrested for it,” said Toni Lawson, a Basque American who lobbies for Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and spent several years in the Basque country. 


News of the arrests quickly spread through the Boise Basque community, and when Otamendi was released, his statements and a photo were e-mailed around — to Patty Miller at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, to Miren Artiach, deputy secretary of state, and so on. 


The 15,000 Euskaldunak in Boise make up one of the largest Basque populations in the world — third after an enclave in Argentina and the people who live in the coastal and mountainous region the Basques call Euskal Herria, and which the rest of the world calls Spain and France. 


Their grandparents came here in the late 1800s, and more came in the early days of Francisco Franco´s fascist regime, which started with the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Many of them were dispossessed of land and tormented by the bombing at Gernika, which Franco orchestrated with the Nazis to squelch Basque resistance to his Nationalist party. The Generalissimo outlawed any showing of Basque culture or pride. 


So the Boiseans each have a history, like Artiach, whose mother was imprisoned by Franco and whose cousin has been in prison for 20 years. 


Cenarrusa has been among the leaders of Basque Americans for decades. In 1972, after visits to Spain, he pushed a memorial through the Legislature that outlined the injustices he attributed to Franco, who ruled until he died in 1975. 

“We couldn´t speak Basque in the streets,” he said. “It had to be all underground. You couldn´t have the Basque flag, the colors.” 


And now with the arrests and the closure of Egunkaria, Cenarrusa said Spain hasn´t changed. 


“The remnants of Franco are still there,” he said. 


The new anti-terrorism, embraced by the U.S. 


ETA started as one of the groups trying to preserve the Basque language and heritage and create a Basque country, but it later began to wage a bloody street war with the Spanish government and the Guardia Civil. 


Human rights watchdog Amnesty International says the terrorist group is responsible for around 800 deaths since 1968, making it one of the most lethal terrorist organizations in the world. 


Amnesty International says the group has not stopped abusing human rights and condemned its campaign of street violence, which has killed more civilians than military personnel in recent years. 


The Guardia Civil is Spain´s national police — serving both the ministries of Interior and Defense. 


They closed Egunkaria and arrested Otamendi and others under the country´s anti-terrorism laws. 


Wire services reported that a judge ordered the arrests based on documents he said linked the beginnings of the newspaper 13 years ago with ETA. The Embassy referred to his findings, and reiterated that it was that judge´s decision — not the government´s. 


Otamendi maintains that he and the newspaper have not been connected with the terrorists either then or now. Just days before his arrest, he said, he wrote an editorial condemning an ETA killing. 


But the journalist has interviewed ETA leaders, and Spanish officials have tried to get information from him before. It´s information that Otamendi said he doesn´t have. 


He wants to preserve the Basque language, and is a proponent of an independent Basque nation, but he said he does not support the terrorist activities of ETA. 


“ETA is some thing,” he said. “Working for the Basque culture is another thing.” 

The difference is one clear to Boise Basques, too. It´s like being a Muslim and against the 9/11 attacks, or being anti-abortion and condemning the attack of abortion doctors. 


“We´re all against terrorism,” Cenarrusa said. 


Basque Americans say they can be in favor of preserving the history and culture, but against nationalism, or for a Basque nation and against ETA. 


The memorial Cenarrusa and Bieter sponsored last year called for an end to all the violence. But it didn´t limit that call just to ETA. It demanded a peace process between the Basques and Madrid, which Spanish authorities have refused to begin. 


The Spanish government fought the Idaho Legislature´s support of the Basques by pressuring officials in Washington. 


“Madrid does not want Washington to support any program or idea like the memorial,” Otamendi said. 


And in fact, the Bush administration fought the memorial last year, eventually convincing Idaho lawmakers to write a compromise version that said the state had “unqualified support” for the United States and other countries´ “war on terrorism.” 


Ruperez, the Spanish ambassador who came to Boise in 2001, explained the country´s stance in a letter to the editor to The Statesman then. 


“There is no political conflict between Spain and the Basque Country, and, as a consequence, there is no need for any political solution to a non-existing conflict,” he wrote. “The only conflict that we have to solve is the one created by the ETA Basque terrorism. 


“The terrorists´ demands for a referendum on self-determination as a prerequisite for peace do not constitute the basis for the existence of any conflict. They only prove the irrational need for the terrorists to justify what isn´t justifiable under any circumstance, i.e., the use of violence and terror. 


“From that viewpoint, ETA´s terrorists´ references to self-determination are very similar to the references made by the al-Qaida group to the situation in the Middle East.” 


Basques vote in all Spanish elections, Ruperez wrote, and the Basque autonomous region is afforded the “greatest level of self-government of any region of Europe.” 


But Cenarrusa and Otamendi both say they think Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is trying to stomp out the Basque language — Euskara — and its traditions. Aznar has outlawed the nationalist political party Batasuna, which he said is also tied to ETA. Other Basque newspapers and publications have been closed. 


The embassy said Friday that the country supports all of the languages spoken within its borders. 


But the Basques here say Aznar has been emboldened in the post-9/11 climate, stepping up his anti-terrorism activities since U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act and other sweeping domestic security bills. 


“He´s using George Bush for his convenience,” Cenarrusa said. 


Many rally for Otamendi, and groups call for facts 


While Otamendi said he was blindfolded and naked in a Guardia Civil holding room in Madrid, tens of thousands of people were rallying in San Sebastian for his freedom, papers reported. 


He and the others have received support from groups from around the world, as well as nearby Catalonia, which also is trying to maintain its own traditional culture. 


Leaders of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, were criticized in British papers by conservatives in Wales after signing a petition opposing the closure of Egunkaria. 


Amnesty International, which has “unreserved condemnation of the human rights abuses committed by ETA,” called on its Web site for the Spanish government to clearly justify the closing of the newspaper. 


And journalist groups, too, have spoken out. The International Federation of Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders protested the closure soon after the news. 


“The necessary and legitimate fight against terrorism must respect the principle of press freedom, which is at the core of any democracy,” Reporters Without Borders spokesman Robert Ménard wrote in a letter to Spanish Justice Minister José-Maria Michavila. “It is hardly the moment to close a newspaper when the courts have not yet ruled on the charges against its arrested journalists.” 


The futures of Bilbao and Boise are tied together 


Now, Otamendi is out of custody, but the fate of Egunkaria is in the hands of the Spanish judge, who will decide whether the newspaper should stay closed. 


“We don´t expect they will open Egunkaria,” Otamendi said. 


Even if they did, he said they may station a government official with the editor, “to tell him what he has to write about.” 


But the day after Egunkaria was closed, Otamendi´s workmates — the 140 or so who weren´t arrested — opened Egunero, which means “Daily,” in Basque. 

Egunkaria circulated to 15,000 people, Otamendi said. Egunero has circulated to 45,000 people a day since. 


Pete Cenarrusa is coming back to Boise next week and said he wants to convince the Legislature to officially condemn the Spanish action. 


“It´s wrong,” he said. “The Spanish government was wrong.” 


And if he does, Boise Basques fear the Idaho lawmakers who took calls and e-mails from the Bush administration last time may get even more attention from Washington, which may not want to alienate one of its few Iraq war supporters in the international community. 


U.S. support of Madrid bothers Boise Basques. 


“It´s disturbing to me that our government would defend that government,” Lawson said. 


“That behavior in the U.S. would be unacceptable to anyone in our country.” 


Meanwhile, Otamendi and the Basques in Spain look for any support they can get from Idaho. 


“I hope I will be the last one tortured in the Basque country,” he said. 


To offer story ideas or comments, contact Gregory Hahn or 377-6425