Amid a bitterly divisive campaign for next month's national elections, the Spanish government is cracking down on Basque separatists and their potential ballot-box voice with a string of arrests and the banishing of political parties.
The police and judicial actions underscore a sobering backdrop to the March 9 elections: the collapse of a landmark truce with the armed Basque organization ETA that had appeared to have ended the decades-old conflict. There are no negotiations or other prospects for peace on the horizon.
That will exacerbate tensions in the contest for a new parliament and prime minister, elections already threatened by possible violence, according to officials. Three days before the last national elections here, in 2004, Islamic militants killed nearly 200 people in the deadliest terrorist attack in continental Europe in recent years.
Spanish authorities this week arrested 14 people suspected of being members of ETA's political wing, a banned party called Batasuna.
Acting on a request from the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a high court judge, Baltasar Garzon, directed a series of nighttime raids rounding up the suspects. On Wednesday, Garzon interrogated the 14, who are suspected of attempting to reconstitute the leadership of Batasuna, which was largely dismantled late last year.
Garzon ordered 11 of the 14 to be imprisoned pending charges; the other three were released on bail.
In a separate move, Garzon also slapped crippling restrictions on two other Basque parties -- Basque Nationalist Action, or ANV, and the Communist Party of the Basque Lands, or PCTV -- because of alleged ties to Batasuna. They are barred from political activity for three years and their bank accounts frozen -- meaning, among other things, that they cannot field candidates in next month's elections.
The PCTV has nine lawmakers in the Basque Country's regional parliament, and dozens of city council members are aligned with the ANV. All will be allowed to keep their posts for now but cannot campaign as a party.
Spanish judicial officials maintain that the two parties are fronts for ETA, giving the independence movement a voice in civilian politics. Evidence being used by Garzon's office includes bank records that purportedly show the two parties giving money to Batasuna officials.
The crackdown was met with angry street protests by several thousand demonstrators and several nights of vandalism, small bombs and burned public property in major Basque cities. Batasuna called a general strike for today.
"Zapatero, with these policies of illegalization, is telling us that it is impossible to work through politics," Batasuna said in a statement published Wednesday in the Basque newspaper Gara.
Although few Spaniards would doubt that the Batasuna leadership is guilty of being allied with ETA, the timing of the government's actions raises questions. Zapatero is running for reelection and has invested much political capital in trying to make peace with ETA, only to be frustrated. Observers say he is keen now to show himself especially tough in his handling of the "terrorist band," as he calls ETA, and all of its allies.
"There's a sense that whatever evidence they have against the parties, they've had it for a long time, and that they have used it now, ahead of elections, for political reasons," Paul Rios, national coordinator of Lokarri, a Basque civil rights organization, said in a telephone interview from the Vizcaya area of the Basque Country.
"A lot of Basque society has taken a step beyond this," Rios said. "They are telling ETA and the Spanish government that [the armed conflict] is a thing of the past, and they want solutions for their daily lives."
ETA, an acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language, has been fighting for an independent Basque nation since the late 1960s. More than 800 people have been killed.
But with its leadership depleted and its followers exhausted, ETA in March 2006 declared for the first time a "permanent" cease-fire, and the war finally appeared to have ended. Nine months later, however, ETA militants exploded a bomb in a parking garage at Madrid's international airport, killing two people, and the peace process quickly unraveled.
Zapatero continued to pursue dialogue for a brief time, but hundreds of thousands of people who coursed through Madrid streets in protest convinced him that there was no goodwill for ETA. He has adopted a harder line ever since.
"The losers undoubtedly are ETA," Zapatero told an interviewer this week. "ETA lost a new opportunity that the democracy gave it," he said, adding that "there is no possibility" of renewing talks with ETA in the foreseeable future.