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Europe

Top Basque Leaders On Trial Over ETA Contacts

Two leading Basque politicians are on trial in Bilbao on charges that they held talks in mid-2006 with leaders of Batasuna, the political wing of the banned separatist group ETA.

A riot police officer face-to-face with Arnaldo Otegi, the head of Batasuna

Batasuna's Otegi (right) criticized the trial

The head of the Basque government, Juan Jose Ibarretxe of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and the regional leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Patxi Lopez, face possible jail terms and bans on political activity amid preparations for regional elections on March 1. Their trial began Thursday, Jan. 8.

The men have dismissed the charges as unfounded, saying that their contacts with Batasuna were part of efforts by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to find a negotiated solution to the long-standing Basque problem. Ibarretxe told a preliminary hearing in 2008 that he is committed to "talk to everyone" to find a end to a problem that has bedeviled Spanish politics for decades.

Lopez said that he is "absolutely convinced" there will be no convictions, arguing that "no court will say that politics should not be used to move on the road to peace."

Prosecutors have called for the charges to be dropped. They said that the negotiations were part of the men's legitimate "political activities" and were aimed at "finding a solution to the Basque conflict."

Socialist legislator Rodolfo Ares is also on trial, as are four senior members of Batasuna. Arnaldo Otegi, who is a former Batasuna spokesman, stressed that "this will be the only case in Europe where the participants in talks will be in the dock for having tried to find solutions."

Basque Judge Alfonso Gonzalez Guija said "it would be very healthy for democracy not to criminalize political life."

Judge says the issue is crime

Basque regional president Juan Jose Ibarretxe

Basque regional president Ibarretxe has to answer to the court

But Judge Roberto Saiz of the Basque criminal court disagrees. He has argued that there are "indications of a crime" and insisted in October 2007 that the trial go ahead.

The charges were brought by two organizations, Dignity and Justice and the Forum Ermua. The latter wants the accused to face prison terms of up to four years and bans on political activity. The two groups say that the talks were part of an effort to "legitimize" Batasuna.

Critics argue that the charges are aimed at discrediting Zapatero and his policies. During the July 2006 talks, Ares appeared before television cameras with Otegi, whom he urged to "leave the field of violence," enter political life, and "take part in a round table of political parties."

The four separatist politicians are charged with defying a court order to dissolve Batasuna, which was banned in 2003 for refusing to break with ETA, and to condemn violence. ETA has killed 825 people in a 40-year effort aimed at securing Basque independence. Zapatero has taken a tougher approach toward ETA since at least June 2007, when it ended a 15-month ceasefire and refused to resume talks. The court may ask for written responses to its questions from Zapatero and from his two predecessors, Jose Maria Aznar and Felipe Gonzalez. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

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