Spain's Supreme Court barred hundreds of Basque separatist candidates from running in regional elections later this month because of links to an outlawed party closely tied to armed group ETA.
There was no immediate comment from Basque separatists on the ruling on Sunday. But ETA issued a statement last month, warning the government against barring its supporters from competing in the May 27 elections.
The group said it would take such a move ``very much into account.'' Many saw ETA's statement as a veiled threat of renewed violence. ETA already shattered a nine-month ceasefire with a massive car bombing on Dec. 30 that demolished a Madrid airport parking garage, killing two people.
On Thursday, the government had asked the courts to rule on hundreds of Basque candidate lists, calling for those which had links with violent separatism to be banned from running.
After hours of debate, 16 Supreme Court magistrates decided unanimously on Sunday to bar all 246 candidate lists presented for election under the banner of Abertzale Sozialistak, or Basque Nationalist Socialists; 133 belonging to Accion Nacionalista Vasca, or Basque Nationalist Action, and one independent candidate.
The magistrates ruled that some of the candidates on the lists, running for office in local government in the northern Basque region, had links with political groups that were outlawed because of association with ETA.
Basque party Batasuna has undergone several name changes since the 1970s, including Herri Batasuna and Euskal Herritarrok, and is considered the political wing of ETA. Batasuna was outlawed by the Supreme Court in March 2003 on grounds that it was part of ETA.
Critics called Abertzale Sozialistak a successor of Batasuna.
Basque Nationalist Action dates back to the 1930s, but has not taken part in an election since the late 1970s. Unlike Batasuna, it is a legal party because its charter rejects violence, a requirement stipulated by law.
The government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had supplied the court with evidence that despite its charter, the party's candidate lists had been infiltrated by ETA supporters who have not disavowed violence.
Spain's conservative opposition Popular Party had called on the government to ban obscure, last-minute parties from running in Basque elections because it was obvious, they said, that despite new party names the candidates behind them really represented Batasuna's interests.
The court decision was bound to anger Basque separatists who have insisted their members should be allowed to run for local office as an essential condition for keeping alive a peace process that began with the ``permanent ceasefire'' ETA declared in March last year.
Despite the bombing in December, ETA has said the ceasefire remained in place and the attack was intended only as a warning to the government.
The government rejected that argument, saying two people were killed in the bombing and thus the peace process had broken down.
ETA has killed more than 800 people since it took up arms four decades ago in a bid to carve out an independent state from ancestral Basques regions in northern Spain and neighboring southern France.