Free the leader of the Basque peace process
In a troubled world, the Irish peace process give great hope to all struggling to find an alternative to war. Nowhere is that more true than in the Basque Country where the fragile flower of peace is starting to bloom thanks to the bold decision of ETA in 2011 to end its five-decade armed campaign.
That unilateral decision has opened up new possibilities for the Basque people whose legendary generosity and boundless hospitality are matched only by their fierce patriotism and pride.
In the north of Ireland, the fledgling peace process was bolstered by swift moves to shore up confidence in republican communities which were taking risks for peace. That meant in particular finding ways to set free the prisoners who had made peace possible.
Sadly, in the Basque Country — as an exasperated Fr Alex Reid once told me — the Spanish Government has set its face against any initiatives which might entrench the peace. Instead, it continues to hold hundreds of Basque prisoners in jails which are a day’s journey and more from their families and appears resolved to harass and obstruct those building a pro-independence Basque political movement.
Nowhere is this aggressive attitude to the peacemakers more clear than in the continued detention of Arnaldo Otegi the man the media have dubbed “the Basque Gerry Adams” in recognition of his key role in replacing war-war with jaw-jaw.
Arrested in 2009, Arnaldo was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for membership of the political party Batasuna which had been banned by the Spanish Government. His case has taken many Kafkaesque twists and turns since that date — a former MP in the Basque Parliament, his jail sentences are all linked not to armed activities but to fanciful claims by the government that he was carrying out political activities at the behest of ETA. The hounding of the leader of the Basque peace process only serves to highlight the Spanish Govenrment’s fear that Arnaldo Otegi will deliver independence to Euskadi by wholly peaceful and democratic means.
Among those who have endorsed the release call are Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Mairead Corrigan as well as the Rev Harold Good, who oversaw the IRA’s decommissioning process, and Martin McGuinness. You can see more about the ‘Free Otegi; Free Them All’ campaign online.
I met Arnaldo many years ago — we took in a Real Sociedad game in Donostia-San Sebastian — and was taken not only by his charismatic nature but also by the rapturous reception he received from young fans. I thought then and believe now that if anyone can bring peace and independence to the Basque Country it is Arnaldo Otegi. The Spanish Government should release him immediately so that he can continue the work of building the peace.
Today I am especially asking Irish American leaders who have backed the Irish peace process to join me in signing the declaration calling for Arnaldo Otegi’s release.