In the past month, events in the long, drawn-out process toward the dissolution of ETA, the violent Basque separatist organization, have taken a surprising turn. On Dec. 28, ETA’s prisoners—more than 500 of whom are dispersed across prisons in Spain and France, vastly outnumbering the few dozen militants who remain in hiding—issued a statement in which they distanced themselves from armed struggle and recognized the suffering and harm inflicted by decades of violence. They also pledged to pursue their release from prison through the Spanish legal system, abandoning their old demand for amnesty.
A week later came the turn of 63 prisoners recently released in compliance with a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. The 63, who represented the hardest of ETA’s hard men and women, had served an average of 25 years in prison each for more than 300 of ETA’s 830 assassinations. Like their imprisoned comrades, they fully committed themselves to the pursuit of their goals by democratic means and assumed “full responsibility” for what they termed “the consequences of the conflict.”
Although short of the repentance and open demand for ETA’s dissolution that many had wished to hear, the prisoners’ de facto recognition of the legitimacy and authority of the French and Spanish states was big—and good—news. Reactions in Spain suggesting otherwise illustrate the extraordinarily emotional, and at times irrational, climate within which the gradually approaching end of ETA is occurring. At their core, the reactions reflect deeply held differences over whether to pursue the end of ETA solely through the “defeat” of its terrorism or accept that a “peace process” is required to move forward from decades of violence. The center-right government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, under pressure from the more right-wing factions of his People’s Party, has placed so much store in the former that it is directly impeding the latter, despite the fact that ETA’s violence is a thing of the past, and that Spain has not conceded on any of its core demands.