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.
Three years after a deadly virus struck India’s endangered Asiatic lions in their last remaining natural habitat, conservationists are hunting for new homes to help booming prides roam free. The majestic big cats, slightly smaller than their African cousins and with a fold of skin along their bellies, were once found widely across southwest Asia. Hunting and human encroachment saw the population plunge to just 20 by 1913, and the lions are now found only in a wildlife sanctuary in India’s western Gujarat State. Following years of concerted government efforts, the lion population in Gir National Park has swelled to nearly 700, according
A rogue overgrown sheep found roaming through regional Australia has been shorn of his 35kg fleece — a weight even greater than that of the famous New Zealand sheep Shrek, who was captured in 2005 after six years on the loose. The merino ram, dubbed Baarack by rescuers, was discovered wandering alone with an extraordinarily overgrown wool coat, and was promptly shorn to save his life. Kyle Behrend, from the Edgar’s Mission farm sanctuary, said that it appeared Baarack was “once an owned sheep” who had escaped. Merino sheep do not shed their fleece and need to be shorn at least annually, as
DMZ SWIM: Over more than three hours, South Korean surveillance cameras caught him eight times and audible alarms sounded twice, but border guards did not notice A North Korean defector wore a diving suit and fins during a daring six-hour swim around one of the world’s most fortified borders and was only caught after apparently falling asleep, a Seoul official said. South Korean forces did not spot the man’s audacious exploit, despite his appearance several times on surveillance cameras after he landed and triggered alarms, drawing heavy criticism from media and opposition lawmakers. Even after his presence was noticed, the man — who used diving gear to make his way by sea around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula — was not caught for another
‘GRAVE CONCERN’: A critic of the government died immediately following his complaints of torture at the hands of security forces, a human rights group said Students on Friday clashed with police in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, as anger mounted at the death of a writer and government critic in a high-security jail. At least 18 police and an unknown number of protesters were injured in the clashes, authorities and witnesses said, amid international demands for an independent investigation into the death of Mushtaq Ahmed. An Agence France-Presse correspondent witnessed police using batons and firing tear gas at students who staged a torchlight march calling for “justice” near the University of Dhaka. At least six students who allegedly attacked security forces with torches were detained, police said. More protests were planned