35 Basque separatists go on trial in Spain

35 Basque separatists go on trial in Spain

San Fernando de Henares (Spain) (AFP) - A trial of 35 members of Basque separatist parties including Batasuna, the banned political wing of the armed ETA group, got under way Thursday in Spain after being repeatedly postponed.

The defendants stand accused of carrying out political activities to back ETA, blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France.

They are charged with "participation in a terrorist organisation" because of their political activities which included giving press conferences and holding meetings even though their parties were banned.

If they are convicted, they face prison terms of up to 10 years as well as a ban on holding public office for at least a decade.

The trial -- which was initially set to begin eight years ago -- is scheduled to run until March 2016.

Just before the trial began at a court in San Fernando de Henares, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Madrid, the 35 accused posed for photographers behind a banner that read: "No more political trials."

"It is clearly a political persecution trial since the serious crime that the 35 are accused of is of having carried out political work," one of the accused, Pernardo Barrena, the spokesman of Basque separatist party Sortu, told reporters.

Two French nationals, Aurore Martin and Haizpea Abrizketa, are among the accused along with veteran Basque independence leaders such as Juan Jose Petrikorena.

"We are very proud of our political activism and we think the work done has a lot to do with the new context of peace which we know in the Basque Country," Martin said as she read a short declaration before the start of the trial which is expected to end in March 2016.

Most of the accused are suspected members of Batasuna, which was banned in Spain in 2003 because it refused to condemn violence by ETA.

It was the first time since the death in 1975 of dictator General Francisco Franco that a political party was banned in Spain.

Batasuna was authorised in neighbouring France until it voluntarily dissolved in 2013.

- 'Anachronistic' -

The trial of the 35 was postponed several times, most recently in January, after three of their six lawyers were arrested, accused of tax evasion, money laundering and indoctrinating ETA prisoners.

Their defenders have frequently branded the trial "anachronistic" since many of the accused are now members of Sortu, a legal party created in 2012 which accepts democratic rules and seeks peace in the Basque region.

Abrizketa, a 37-year-old housewife from the town of Urrugne in the French Basque region, was the first to take the stand.

"I led political activities, on numerous occasions in public," she told the court, before adding it was her "fundamental right" to defend her left-wing separatist ideas.

Asked if she ever had any relationship with ETA, she replied: "No".

Her court appearance came exactly 45 years after her father, Josu Abrizketa, and 15 other ETA members went on trial for the assassination of a Spanish policeman in 1968.

The so-called Burgos trial resulted in death sentences which dictator Franco commuted due to international pressure.

ETA in October 2011 declared a "definitive end to armed activity" but it has not formally disarmed nor disbanded as the Spanish and French governments demand.

The group wants negotiations over several issues, such as the fate of around 400 ETA prisoners, before it breaks up.