Spain slapped a three-year ban on the Basque nationalist party Batasuna on Monday. It's the first of a two-prong attack on the party that the Spanish government accuses of supporting the armed separatist group ETA.
Basque-language grafitti beside an ETA symbol says "Dark times are coming"
Accusing it of supporting terrorism, the Spanish High Court has banned the Batasuna party for at least three years on charges that it funds and assists ETA, the armed separatist group seeking an independent homeland in Northern Spain and parts of southwestern France.
The Batasuna party has long denied it is the political wing of the ETA, but those denials weren't enough to stop High Court Judge Baltasar Garzon from issuing a 375-page order accusing ETA of "crimes against humanity" and from closing all offices and businesses of Batasuna, considered by many to be closely linked with the armed group, whose attacks have killed more than 800 people since 1968.
In addition, the judicial order bans the party from holding meetings or calling street demonstrations and shuts of water, electricity and telephone services at party offices. Batasuna representatives will not be allowed to run in next year's local elections, although sitting parliamentarians and local council members will be allowed to continue to serve their terms.
Batasuna's leaders have said the party will appeal against the widely expected ruling.
Police immediately prepared for unrest and possible ETA reprisals. Batasuna officials had warned that a ban would lead to protests.
In Bilbao, long a stronghold of radical Basque nationalism, Batasuna supporters formed a picket around one "People's Tavern," establishments that Garzon wrote act as recruitment centers for radicalized Basque youths and fundraising centers for ETA.
"We are going to remain here all day, helping the bartenders, to see if they dare to try and close the People's Taverns," Rosa, one Batasuna supporter, told a reporter on the scene.
The Spanish parliament also met in an extraordinary session on Monday to vote on a legal suit which will be presented to the country's supreme court on Friday calling for a total ban on the party. The suit went forward on a vote of 295-10, with 29 abstentions.
Parliament passed a controversial law two months ago that makes political parties which justify terrorism, either explicitly or implicitly, responsible for it. The Prime Minister called parliament back from its summer holiday on the basis that Batasuna is now in breach of that law.
Aznar was furious when Batasuna refused to condemn the latest car bombing in a tourist resort which killed a six-year-old girl and a 57-year-old man. Batasuna's refusals to condemn outright such violence, saying it has roots in the Basque struggle for self-determination, have angered politicians across the political spectrum.
Moderate Basque nationalists claim the ban will not have the desired effect, and will only serve to turn the party into a democratic martyr and drive more nationalists into the arms of ETA.
But politicians from the country's mainstream parties said the ban was necessary to safeguard democracy.
"We gave them (Batasuna) an opportunity to change their way of conducting politics and they spurned it by responding with threats and a challenge to the rule of law," José Antonio Bermudez de Castro, parliamentary spokesman for the governing Popular Party, told reporters. "Now we are going to be implacable in applying the law."
The ban is popular among ordinary Spaniards, who are by and large disgusted by ETA killings.