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The Spanish Inquisition
21 mai 2006
"En España se tortura como en Irak"
Cadena sds de la t.v. Australiana entrevista a dos detenid@s vascos.
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For years now, the Basque people of Spain have alleged that Spanish police have regularly tortured suspects, arrested for having connections with the Basque separatist group ETA. Recently, those allegations have been backed up by the UN Human Rights Commission. This disturbing story actually comes at an interesting time in the decades-long Basque conflict. Two weeks ago, ETA - responsible for hundreds of deaths over the years, announced a permanent cease-fire, the best chance yet for a resolution of the conflict. But could the torture allegations derail the peace negotiations? Here's David O'Shea.


This work is in the public domain


Re: The Spanish Inquisition
21 mai 2006
David O’Shea

Four years ago, Susana Alesanco and Juan Cortes were like any other couple getting on with their lives.

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): I was 31 years old, I was at university, on a research project, I was… things were fine with me. I had my partner, my life was fine.

But on January 17, 2002, their world fell apart. Heavily armed police raided Susana’s family home. This is actual footage of the arrest.

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): Lots of cops entered my home carrying torches and machine guns. It was like a scene from a movie.

The police suspected that Susana and Juan belonged to the violent Basque separatist group ETA. They were taken to a secret location in Madrid for interrogation. Under Spain’s tough anti-terror laws, they could be held incommunicado for up to five days, isolated from their families and lawyers.

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): I had no idea why I was there, they asked me so many questions, about my friends, about who I went out with, about my brothers. Thousands of questions about where I had worked, about the trips I had taken. I got the feeling that everything I’d done in my life had been a crime.

Like thousands of Basques before her, Susana alleges she was tortured during the five days she was held incommunicado. Basque human rights activists produced these images which recreate some of the torture commonly described by former prisoners.

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): Without a doubt the worst moment of all, the worst experience was in the last interrogation when, when they simulated a rape. They positioned me, ready to rape me. For three days they had been threatening to rape me. By that stage I , by then I was convinced they’d do it.

Susana says that she was deprived of sleep, sexually assaulted, asphyxiated, threatened with execution, and electrocuted - all methods of torture which inflicted pain without leaving marks.

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): They kept me naked, threw water on me, they applied electricity to me….it’s hard to believe these things can happen in a democracy and very hard to prove. But that is what happened to me, I went through that and by the fourth day I couldn’t stand it any longer.

REPORTER (Translation): So there was a point where they broke you?

SUSANA ALESANCO, (Translation): Yes, that is right, completely.

At that point Susana signed a statement saying that Juan was a member of ETA and that she was a collaborator. This admission was later retracted. Since that time Susana and Juan have been out on conditional release, awaiting trial. They face a 7-year sentence.
Susana’s story is not unique. Theo Van Boven, the former United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has looked at scores of similar cases and concludes the Spanish police torture to extract confessions.

THEO VAN BOVEN, FORMER UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON TORTURE: The suspects will be softened up after torture and they will sign statements, the type of statements the government wishes them to make. That's one thing. And I think also that torture has quite a long tradition in this country. We had the Franco dictatorship up till - what is it? - 1975. And so it has been rooted, I think, in a long history and you don’t wipe that out from one day to another.

The government in Madrid dismisses torture allegations, saying they are part of ETA strategy to discredit the Spanish state. Antonio Camacho is the powerful Secretary of State for Security.

REPORTER (Translation): In 2006 there’s still torture in Spain, How can this be?

ANTONIO CAMACHO, SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SECURITY, (Translation): Look, this government is very clear abot this, and our daily polices demonstrate it, that we will not accept any kind of torture.

While the Spanish Government says it will not accept torture, the well-known case of Unai Romano is difficult to explain. This is his photo before and after his time in police custody in September 2001. He accused the police of beating him. The government said the injuries were self-inflicted and is suing him for defamation.
The former United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Theo Van Boven, was so concerned at reports from Basque human rights groups that prisoners were being tortured, he listed Spain alongside countries like Indonesia and Uzbekistan in his 2002 report. The then Spanish government was not happy.

THEO VAN BOVEN: They thought that my report and the recommendations should be put in the wastepaper basket - that was the only suitable place where my report should stay.

So outraged was Madrid, Van Boven was invited to Spain to investigate the facts on the ground. But as he tells this Barcelona conference on torture, the government's attempts to convince him his sources were wrong backfired.

THEO VAN BOVEN: The visit in Madrid was tense and tough. The authorities - some of them - and members of parliament went far beyond a technical discussion. They wanted to give me a lecture, particularly on the Basque problem, and I could not... I just felt this was an obsession.

It’s impossible to understand the Spanish Government’s obsession with the Basques without understanding the Basque obsession with independence from Spain.
Until the 1970s Basques were not permitted to use their language, but they never lost their strong sense of national identity. In Hernani, near the French border, these people meet to sing Basque folk songs every Sunday morning. From windows around the square, people hang photos of Basques held in Spanish jails and banners demanding they be brought back to Basque prisons.
ETA has waged a horrific campaign on the Spanish state for decades. It has killed over 800 people in terrorist acts over the past 20 years. The government responds by sentencing the killers to thousands of years in prison. The current socialist government has continued the hardline response instigated by the previous conservative administration.

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): I think the struggle against terrorism has been maintained by all democratic governments throughout the history of this country. This government has been particularly careful to maintain pressure in the police struggle against ETA. And consequently, there have been more than 200 arrests in the two years or so that this government has been in power.

ETA’s bombs and the government’s draconian response have polarised opinion in Spain about the Basques.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): They think we walk around t he streets shooting people, blowing things up. They think we go around collecting revolutionary taxes and so on.

Rosa Urizar de Paz knows a lot about the struggle for independence. Her son joined ETA when he was 22 and has spent the last 15 years in prison. Rosa makes no apology for her family’s nationalism.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): This sign here means that everybody in life must sacrifice something sothat a few don’t have to sacrifice everything. That is what it means. This one was killed at the hands of the police.

Rosa’s favourite bar is clearly pro-independence. It is a virtual shrine to the many Basque prisoners.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): Look how beautiful our girls are.

Among them is a photo of her 22-year-old daughter Amaia. She was arrested in October 2004 and is still in prison. She, too, has accused the police of torture. Her case provoked outrage in the Basque country after she wrote a graphic statement describing the torture.

AMAIA, STATEMENT: They were all laughing, one of them held me by my neck while the other put the barrel of the gun in and out of my vagina and grabbed my breasts very violently. I could feel the cold metal inside me and they kept saying it was loaded and would be my fault if it went off.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): you know what hurt me the most? Have you read what she wrote about the torture? Of all those things, the thing I found most upsetting was the terrible loneliness…those poor kids suffer when incommunicado, while they’re being held by the civil guard or the police.

When Rosa visits her other daughter at work, she finds her on the phone to Amaia. Each week she is allowed a 5-minute call from her prison in Madrid.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): How are you darling? Yes Okay. How I wish I could hug you, very well my love, do you need anything? What about the dentist?

Amaia has now been in custody for 1.5 years and can be held for up to four years without trial.

ROSA URIZAR DE PAZ, (Translation): Okay my darling, I love you too darling. Bye.

On her way home Rosa bumps into a friend whose daughter is also in jail and has also complained that she was tortured.

FRIEND, (Translation): Some are eventually freed, having committed no crime at all, they have been tortured, put in jail, and they have had their lives ruined. Most of them are just kids. Just kids. Maybe because we’re talking like this we’ll get ten years and join our girls.

Outside the Basque country the allegations of torture haven’t gained much traction. Anyone with a connection to Basque nationalism tends to be dismissed as a terrorist sympathiser by the national government and media.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): There are many here who turn a blind eye to torture here but show concern about torture in Ireland, torture in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Palestine or Iraq

Martxelo Otamendi was arrested in 2003. He was one of nine directors of a Basque language newspaper called 'Egunkaria'. Five of them say they were tortured and they became known as 'the VIP torture victims'.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): At the time of all the outrage about the American torturers in that Iraqi prison, I said those images were of Egunkaria detainees. We just need to change the hood colour and swap the uniform of the marines.for the uniform of the civil guard.

Otamendi was arrested and his newspaper was shut down on the grounds that it was controlled and financed by ETA - an allegation that is yet to be proven.
In San Sebastian, thousands of people turned out for the city’s largest-ever demonstration. Meanwhile, Otamendi was being interrogated in Madrid about interviews he had conducted with the ETA high command. During the five days of incommunicado detention, he says he suffered stress positions, a mock execution, sexual harassment and asphyxiation.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, FORMER TV PRESENTER (Translation): And then twice I was subjected to bag torture, which consists of putting a plastic bag you’re your head. And with a plastic bag over your head you feel like you are going to choke. It’s not a big plastic bag from a market with enough oxygen to last two hours, no it becomes a mask that moulds to your face, and the feeling of suffocation is immediate.

When the former TV presenter Martxelo Otamendi spoke out about his experience, it convinced many doubters that torture was indeed taking place.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): People wonder if they are capable of torturing the newspaper’s directors, what would they do to a 20-year-old, who’s unknown, not famous, somebody nobody knows? And someone the media won’t pay much attention to.

Otamendi believes the last conservative government ordered the closure of the paper and tortured him and the four others as a warning to other Basque nationalists.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): I think that with torture as I’ve said before, in the black period of the Popular Party They wanted to give Basques a shock, to frighten them, so they would give up their cause. The politicians’ plan was to close the newspaper, detain the staff and torture them. So that people would get the message that they were serious.

REPORTER, (Translation): But you don’t have any proof that it’s government policy, that’s just speculation.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): Yes, of course, it’s an opinion.

When the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Theo Van Boven, finished his state-sponsored tour his report to the UN Human Rights Ccommission was damning.

THEO VAN BOVEN: It is my considered view in the light of the internal consistency of the information received and the precision of factual details, that these allegations of torture and ill-treatment are certainly not all invented and practices of this kind, though not systematic, were more than sporadic and incidental.

The Spanish delegation in Geneva was furious.

SPANISH AMBASSADOR TO UN, (Translation): someone’s made a big mistake, and those who know the country and it’s problems, know who it is. On reading the report, no one with any knowledge of our country would recognise Spain in it.

When the Spanish Ambassador to the UN couldn’t believe that the proudly democratic Spain was being tainted with torture.

SPANISH AMBASSADOR TO UN, (Translation): All that’s left for me to do in the name of a truly democratic state that leads in the defence and promotion of human rights is to express disappointment and bitterness at the lost opportunity and the outrageous injustice that the rapporteur’s report represents.

It was all the worse for the ambassador because he was the one who had advised his government to invite the special rapporteur to Spain to prove that torture did not exist. Once he had read his statement, the entire delegation got up and walked out.

THEO VAN BOVEN: They were extremely - what should I say? - disappointed. "We invited him, we had a certain scenario in mind and he did not fulfil our expectations." So I think that added to the fact they reacted so strongly.

It was a difficult time for Spain. Just two weeks earlier, terrorist attacks had rocked Madrid and prime minister Aznar was voted out of office for trying to blame the attack on ETA. The new socialist government claims that torture allegations are being properly investigated.

REPORTER< (Translation): But when Basques have been detained under the regime of incommunicado detention, do you agree that there have been incidents of torture?

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): You can not generalise, each claim of torture must be investigated.

REPORTER, (Translation): Let’s look at some examples of people reported having been tortured.

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): You can tell me the allegations, but it doesn’t mean there’s a serious investigation. European countries conduct serious judicial investigations in the most appropriate manner and with the required guarantees for all parties, in order to investigate these matters. A journalistic investigation is not acceptable for a state which follows the rule of law.

In the Basque country the issue of torture still strikes a raw political nerve. Thousands of people turned up for this anti-torture rally in San Sebastian in February.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): The big turnout was expected, because people are pissed off with the practice of torture. Because people want it to end once and for all.

THEO VAN BOVEN: For long in Spain it was a sort of taboo subject in Spain. Officially torture did not exist, or hardly existed in this country. Now this is raised at this meeting and I think this is a beginning of a movement against torture in Spain which is important.

But despite the change of government, allegations of torture during incommunicado detention continue.

REPORTER: There is no denying the reality that last year, during the Zapatero Government, there were over 50 cases documented in the Basque country of torture again. So, I mean, 50 too many, no?

THEO VAN BOVEN: It is apparently a practice that is very persistent so therefore I think in addition to accommodating and changing the political climate there must be a firmer position taken on the issues of torture also by the present government.

REPORTER: Do you see that ever happening?

THEO VAN BOVEN: Well, I'm hopeful.

The present government is clearly sensitive about the persistent allegations of torture.

REPORTER, (Translation): There are many people and many organisations, including Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe, Amnesty International and 37 groups that met in Barcelona that have agreed that there is torture here in incommunicado detention…

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): Which country in the European Union, hasn’t had cases of torture reported?

REPORTER, (Translation): In the European Union as far as I know, Mr Theo van Bovan, the former rapporteur, said that there used to be in Northern Ireland, but now most of the allegations concern Spain.

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): Turn that off for a moment…

REPORTER, (Translation): No…

ANTONIO CAMACHO, (Translation): Turn it off for a moment! Let’s talk about the terms of this interview, turn it off. Turn it off for a moment.

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): The Spanish government won’t own up to torture until a solution to the Basque conflict is found.

REPORTER, (Translation): Why can’t they admit it before then?

MARTXELO OTAMENDI, (Translation): Because if they do they will go to jail. The Minister would go to jail, it would be like in Argentina and Chile, where senior police and military officers are being prosecuted. In 20 years time some judges will start doing that here too. But I want this done now.

The prospects for a political solution to the Basque problem took a dramatic turn for the better last month. For the first time in its history ETA declared a permanent cease-fire as a prelude to negotiations.

ETA, (Translation): At the end of this process Basque citizens must have the final word and decide on their future.

Any decision on the future for the Basque country is going to have to deal with the issue of torture which has poisoned trust in the Spanish Government.

PEOPLE, (Translation): We are the Basque warriors to set the Basque country free. We are prepared to give our blood for freedom. Let us warriors all go and get our flags.

After decades of violent struggle, it will not be easy to bridge the gulf of trust between the Basques and the Spanish Government.
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