Sat, Jan 10, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Basque leaders go on trial ahead of polls

AFP , BILBAO, SPAIN

The head of the Basque government and his chief opponent went on trial on Thursday over past contacts with the banned political wing of the armed separatist group ETA, just weeks before they are to face off in regional elections.

Juan Jose Ibarretxe, member of the governing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and Patxi Lopez, regional leader of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party, face possible prison terms and bans on political activity if found guilty.

But the two, along with another senior member of the Basque branch of the Socialist Party, Rodolfo Ares, who is also on trial, are not expected to be convicted as prosecutors have called for the charges against them to be dropped.

During the first session of the trial, prosecutor Maria Angeles Montes asked the court to shelve the affair based on a previous Supreme Court ruling that a trial can not be held if the accusation is not backed by either prosecutors or the direct victims of a crime.

But Ibarretxe’s lawyer, Mikel Casas, surprised the court with a request that the trial continue to the end to obtain a ruling that proves his client “was right.”

“We want to prove the innocence of the Lehendakari as well as that of the others. What they did, taking a step forward to search for peace, was fair and legitimate,” he told the court, using the Basque name for the head of the northern region’s government.

The court suspended the trial after the morning session to consider the request of prosecution lawyers. It will issue its decision on Monday.

The three politicians are accused of repeatedly meeting leaders of Batasuna — ETA’s political wing — during the failed bid by the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to negotiate peace with the militant separatist group in 2006.

Batasuna has been outlawed since 2003 for refusing to condemn violence and cut its links to ETA, which has killed 825 people in a 40-year-old campaign for an independent Basque homeland.

Five senior Batasuna members, including veteran Arnaldo Otegi, are also on trial for disobeying the court order to disband.

All three politicians have admitted contacts with Batasuna, but as part of moves to push forward the peace process.

Ibarretxe last week announced regional elections for March 1, in which he is hoping to secure a fourth successive mandate.

But opinion polls indicate his PNV, which has governed the region since 1980, risks being defeated by the Socialists, led by Lopez.

The trial, which was originally expected to last three weeks, is the result of complaints filed by two associations opposed to talks with ETA, the Forum Ermua and Dignity and Justice.

Among witnesses expected to make statements at the trial are Zapatero, who could be asked to respond to questions from the court in writing, and his two predecessors, Jose Maria Aznar and Felipe Gonzalez.

Zapatero tried unsuccessfully to resolve the Basque problem in 2006. But he has taken a hard line against the separatists since ETA called off a 15-month-old ceasefire in June 2007 and has repeatedly ruled out any new negotiations.

All eight defendants — the three politicians and five Batasuna members — were in court on Thursday but did not take the stand.

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