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Spain Is Sending This Basque Activist to Jail for Writing an Op-Ed

Zach Campbell

Maite Perez grew up in the old city of Bilbao, in Spain's Basque Country, in the 1970s. It was a time when military police roamed the streets and the region's language and culture were repressed in the name of a national Spanish identity. It was also a time when Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, the armed separatist group formed two decades earlier to fight against Francisco Franco's dictatorship for an independent Basque state, had enormous support in parts of the Basque Country. 

Perez would later join ETA, forming part of a cell called Orbaizeta. She died in 1987 when a car bomb that she was installing exploded. Local news at the time speculated that the bomb, which blew up part of a parking lot next to the central river in San Sebastian, was intended to kill Spanish National Police officers. Her death, celebrated by some and mourned by others, has come to represent two sides of a conflict that still rocks the Basque Country today.

It was to mark the 25th anniversary of her death that six Basque activists published an homage to Maite Perez in 2012 in the newspaper Gara, celebrating her resistance, thanking her for “taking her commitment to the extreme,” and writing that she was a moral compass for the Basque people. Julen Orbea, one of the authors, knew the article would get attention, but never thought he would be charged with terrorism over it. Now he's about to go behind bars for two years, convicted for what amounts to thoughtcrime. 

Orbea, 34, is what the Basque would call a chico del barrio, a neighborhood guy: He is from Bilbao's old city, works at a local bar, is active with civic organizations and political causes, and can't seem to walk two blocks without running into someone he knows. Tall, sturdy, and sporting the mullet that is emblematic of the Basque separatist left, Orbea maintains that the timing of his conviction, nearly two years after the article was published, was political. With the end of ETA in the Basque Country in sight and a push for independence in Catalonia—Sunday's straw poll, in which Catalans overwhelmingly favored independence, was non-binding—he argues that the Spanish government is overly eager to quash any separatist feelings in both areas.

“This is about whose version of history is recorded,” Orbea told me. Maite Perez, like the six authors of the article, was from Bilbao's old city. There, Orbea says, Perez is remembered not as a terrorist, but as an activist, a musician, a neighbor, a teacher, and a friend.

A year after the article was published, five of the authors and the director of the newspaper Gara were forced to testify in front of the Audiencia NacionalSpain's special court for terrorism cases. The court was created in 1977 to replace Franco's Tribunal of Public Order, an especially repressive instrument of the dictatorship. The sixth author was a minor at the time of publication, and, in a separate proceeding, is currently awaiting sentence.

The court found all five guilty of “praising terrorism,” a law in Spain that was created in to sap popular support from the Basque independence movement and from ETA. The judges were direct in their sentencing: They argued that the article humanized and praised a known ETA member, that praising terrorists is illegal in Spain, that Orbea and the others admitted to authoring the piece, and thus deserved the given sentence. 

Orbea never denies having supported ETA ideologically. “Most of the separatist left did,” he says. “Armed struggle was part of the strategy.” 

But can a democratic government make purely ideological support illegal?

A rally in Barcelona after a symbolic vote on independence for Catalonia from Spain.
AFP/Getty Images

Spain has some of the harshest counter-terrorism laws in Europe. In the U.S., the most basic terrorism charge a person can receive is material support: giving money, time, advice, training, or other assistance to a designated terrorist group. Spain took this idea one step further in 2000 when it changed the existing laws to criminalize enaltecimiento, literally the praising or “heightening” of terrorism. Desperate to end the kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings that plagued the Basque Country for decades, prosecutors have used this law to criminalize support not just for ETA, but also many parts of the Basque separatist movement. 

In a conflict where the line between activism and violence has been so blurry, Spain's battle, too, is ideological.

Apology of terrorism is a crime in many European countries. However, the standards for conviction are high, as the law requires that the speech in question be meant to incite violence or as a call to arms, according to Carlos Sánchez, a Spanish lawyer specializing in free speech cases.

Enaltecimiento is an extension of the existing apology law with a much lower standard: Any speech or act that can be seen to praise terrorists or terrorism can get you up to two years in prison. Sánchez likens it to other Spanish expression laws, particularly those against flag burning and “offenses to the crown.”

The timing of enaltecimiento cases is often political, says Iñaki Irizar, a Basque lawyer who has defended many terrorism cases. Irizar adds that there have been hundreds of enaltecimiento prosecutions since the law was written.

“When ETA was still armed, you could predict when there would be a court case, a certain time after an attack,” he said. “It was their way of saying 'we're watching you' to Basque nationalists.”

Spain's fight in this conflict has been dirty, too. For decades the Spanish military and civilian police have been accused of torture, kidnapping, and holding political prisoners incommunicado. In 1989, Spanish reporters from El Mundo broke the story that GAL, a right-wing paramilitary group responsible for a string of kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings across the Basque Country, had been created and financed by Madrid.            

These implications went right to the top of the Spanish government. In 1997, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, long held to have led Spain through its transition from dictatorship to democracy, admitted that Spanish politicians had been behind GAL, and blamed it on the still-standing Fascist institutions left over from the days of Franco.

“People don't want to understand that we inherited a state apparatus in its entirety from the dictatorship,” the former prime minister told a reporter from El Pais, another Spanish daily.

Iñaki Soto was forced to testify in front of the Audiencia Nacional alongside Orbea and the other authors of the article about Maite Perez. As the director of Gara, the Basque newspaper that published the piece, Soto was informed by the court that he would be held responsible if its authors weren't identified. His newspaper had already been on the court's radar for interviews its reporters had conducted with ETA members, and for printing allegations of torture at the hands of Spanish police.

“[The court] showed a surprising interest in trying to implicate the newspaper, me or our journalists,” Soto told me. “They asked me about the paper and its operation; things that had nothing to do with the case or the article.”

Spain's special court for terrorism has closed newspapers before: EginGara's predecessor, and Egunkaria, the first newspaper entirely in the Basque language, were closed in 1998 and 2003 by the court for alleged ties to ETA. Years later, both newspapers were cleared of all charges by a Spanish high court. Still, Soto says, the message from the Audiencia was clear.

The enaltecimiento law was written to protect those affected by terrorism and their families, says Mikel Buesa, who chaired one of Spain's largest advocacy groups for victims of terrorism, and whose brother, a Basque politician, was killed by ETA in 2000. The law, he says, was written to limit political speech, and seeks to prevent people from exercising what he calls “symbolic violence.”

“[The law] doesn't punish political speech. It punishes the praising of terrorists and of delinquents,” says Ignacio Gordillo, who served on the Audiencia Nacional for 30 years, starting in 1980, the Basque conflict's bloodiest year. That year, ETA killed 98 people.

Buesa and Gordillo both refused to comment on this particular case, but the latter maintained that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Spanish constitution. Orbea's sentence, written by Gordillo's colleagues on the Audiencia Nacional, argues the same.

In theory, the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, signed in 1978 as the country transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. In practice, and in the case of Orbea and the other five Basque writers, the law's application has been very different.            

All but two of those charged will likely see no jail time. In Spain, first-offense prison sentences of one year or less can be commuted to a hefty fine. This was not Julen Orbea's first offense.

Orbea had been convicted of enaltecimiento once before. In 2009, he was arrested during a protest against Spanish penitentiary policy, for putting up photos of prisoners from his neighborhood. Some of the photos were of ETA members. This is a common cause for the Basque nationalist left: flags, signs, and graffiti supporting political prisoners dot walls and balconies throughout the Basque Country.

“Before 2009 it was really normal to see photos of Basque prisoners in bars, protests and during neighborhood festivals,” Orbea says. “They were a memory of the person and a criticism of their treatment in prison.”

With the new center-left Socialist regional government in 2009 came a crackdown. The police raided bars, took down photos, and prosecuted bar owners. As soon as the police left, the photos would go back up. Orbea was arrested in one of these raids and eventually convicted of enaltecimiento. 

Now Orbea is biding his time before prison. He'll soon receive a letter from the court announcing when he will start his sentence. Orbea is unapologetic about the article and stands by his praise for Maite Perez and what she did—he maintains that he's done his part to preserve her memory. 

It was absolutely enaltecimiento, Orbea tells me. Not of terrorism, but of Maite Perez as a person.

“Of course I praised Maite. Her and all the others that have given their lives for the Basque Country.”

Correction: A previous headline on this story referred to Orbea as a journalist. He's an activist.