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IN A landmark case for the Basque independence movement, Josu Urrutikoetxea, Basque activist and peace negotiator, was acquitted of all charges following his trial at the 16th Anti-Terrorist Correctional Chamber in Paris.
Urrutikoetxea’s prosecution for “criminal association with a terrorist aim” arose from his role as a peace negotiator during talks between Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta) and the Spanish government.
These ended one of the bloodiest conflicts in 20th-century Europe and led to Eta’s voluntary dissolution. It is the first time that charges against a Basque militant have been dismissed.
This outcome was not simply a personal victory for Urrutikoetxea, welcome though that is. It emphasises the importance of peace negotiators in bringing about the end to conflict and for them to be granted and retain immunity for their work.
It was also a major victory for international solidarity. No-one denied Urrutikoetxea’s role as a former leading figure in Eta. The issue was that he had been granted immunity with international guarantees to allow him to partake in that conflict resolution process.
Declaring the verdict the president of the chamber concluded her judgement by stating: “The fact of participating, in one way or another, in negotiations, parley talks, trips, meetings with the aim of bringing a terrorist organisation to definitively stop using violence cannot constitute the delict (liability) of participation in a criminal association with a view to preparing acts of terrorism; as the project does not consist of the preparation of one of the acts of terrorism mentioned in Articles 421-1 et sec (of the French criminal code).”
She continued by emphasising that “neither the material nor the intentional element of the delict of participation in a criminal association for the preparation of acts of terrorism has been established.”
One of the key lessons from Urrutikoetxea’s acquittal is the power of international solidarity. This has been true in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, in the fight against British occupation of Ireland and many other struggles.
It is not surprising therefore that key figures from these conflicts were prominent in endorsing the international appeal for Urrutikoetxea’s acquittal and release.
These included Peter Hain and Gerry Adams who played a key role in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. Another was Ronnie Kasrils, a member of the ANC team which negotiated the peaceful transition of power in South Africa.
Other supporters were London Recruits Alex Moumbaris, Ken Keable and myself who supported uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, through clandestine actions in South Africa in the 1970s. The long list of international signatories also included Ken Loach and Noam Chomsky.
History tells us that all conflicts must eventually come to an end. Negotiations between former protagonists play a key role in achieving this.
In that process “terrorists” often become transformed into the freedom fighters they always knew themselves to be.
This was true for the Mau Mau in Kenya, the ANC in South Africa and of course more recently the IRA in Ireland.
In those struggles close associations are often formed and mutual support assumes great importance. South Africa’s MK veterans helped the IRA end the armed struggle in Northern Ireland.
In turn, IRA leaders shared with Eta their experience of transition from armed to peaceful struggle thereby assisting Eta’s decision to disband.
Urrutikoetxea’s trial was a political case with terrible unforeseen consequences. Without the protections promised to him (flagrantly disregarded by the French authorities in bringing these charges) peace negotiations cannot take place.
A conviction could have been disastrous for future and ongoing conflict resolution. According to his legal team, the international appeal on behalf of Urrutikoetxea played a significant role in helping them present their argument to the court.
It is hoped that this acquittal may set a clear precedent for the protection of future peace negotiators.
Unfortunately, Urrutikoetxea will be back before the French courts on September 13 and 14 facing further charges. He also faces one possible outstanding charge in Spain — three others having been dismissed or settled without imprisonment.
The international campaign for his acquittal will continue. Meanwhile he has been released on bail and is, for the moment, enjoying freedoms he has not experienced for over 20 years.
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