Like many, I am always keen to support any cessation of violence or moves to peace.
In any armed conflict, it takes courage to disarm and good grace to engage with former combatants.
The world is a better place because of those who bravely followed peace processes in the north of Ireland and South Africa and, whilst there are unresolved differences, a willingness to seek truth and reconciliation provides a constructive environment in which former adversaries and communities can move forward together.
The 2011 Basque Peace process involved Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General; Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway; Pierre Joxe, Former Interior Minister of France and former US President Jimmy Carter and saw ETA, the paramilitary group engaged in a violence, end their ‘armed struggle’.
Basque Society has largely supported the peace process. There are a number of major unresolved issues, including the ongoing ill-treatment of Basque prisoners, on which The European Court of Human Rights has made countless rulings against Spain. The two main aspects of which are the policy of dispersing Basque prisoners far afield, including the Canary Islands and the refusal to release seriously ill prisoners. This has seen over 130,000 people march in Bilbao.
In 2013, along with my friend and then MSP colleague Jean Urquhart, I met Spain’s representative in Scotland to commend his country becoming engaged, for the first time, in the Peace Process. Remarkably, he said he had no knowledge of any such process and, in any case, ‘we don’t deal with criminals.’
Many in Scotland were shocked by the brutality visited upon our Catalan sisters and brothers during their referendum campaign by Spain’s notorious state forces. Those forces’ conduct caused no such shock in the Basque Country and that tells you a lot about Franco’s legacy and the ease with which the state apparatus moves to violence.
Those who state that the Catalan referendum was ‘illegal,’ the rule of law must be followed, may wish to reflect that the arbiter in such matters, Spain’s Constitutional Court ranks lower than China for ‘judicial independence from influences of the government’.
I am the convener of Holyrood’s Police Committee, a known sceptic of the increased arming of police officers, and in November I was honoured to be asked to give evidence to the Basque Parliament on policing and human rights.
Policing in the Basque Country is undertaken by four different ‘police’ services; two ‘Spanish’ – the National Police and the hated Guarda Civil; the Basque Police service, the Ertzaintza plus many local municipal forces, ranging from the large Bilbao police to local forces of a handful of officers. Those local municipal officers are largely unarmed but now seek to carry weapons ‘to enhance their status’.
When the widely discredited Ertzaintza was set up in 1982 its commissioned officers had to be previous members of the Spanish army or the State police forces and even today it is widely viewed as conservative in every respect of the word.
My hosts for the visit, Eh Bildu – a grouping of left-wing Basque nationalists – are commendably keen to encourage dialogue around accountable policing. Think Sinn Fein and their changed positive engagement on community safety and the role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
In the Parliament and at the public meetings, I spoke about the Scottish model of policing. There is little if any scrutiny of policing in the Basque Country and an acceptance of an armed service. Eh Bildu’s spokesperson on the community issues, Julen Arzuaga, has been unable to establish any meaningful information about police use of firearms or lethal force.
My visit coincided with high profile trial of police officers accused of causing the death of a much-loved young man, Iñigo Cabacas, who was struck on the head by a rubber bullet and died in agony in hospital a few days later.
Iñigo was a bright young man guilty only of being in the wrong place – a confined courtyard containing a small bar used by people who sympathize with Basque struggle.
After the incident, Police cleaned all their equipment thereby destroying vital evidence and as I have said, in any case there is an unwillingness to keep records of police use of lethal force.
The Police officers were not present in the court, as the Prosecutor was not pushing for conviction albeit, under the Basque system, the family can press a prosecution.
I used to represent police officers who must be able to defend themselves and the public. Risk must be assessed on an ongoing basis and that is true of the Basque Country too and should reflect ETA disarming.
Later in November news came through that Spain had been found guilty in the European Court of Human Rights of yet another torture crime. Those in my company during my time in Bilbao will have expressed no surprise at the ruling and no expectation that things would change.
The Kingdom of Spain should immediately meet modest requests of releasing terminally ill prisoners and bringing prisoners nearer their family.
One thing is clear: the loving parents of Iñigo Cabacas will not be bringing their innocent son home and his murder, like many others, will pass Madrid by.