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As ETA prepares to disband Basque prisoners pine for home

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As ETA prepares to disband Basque prisoners pine for home
Demonstrators hold a banner reading in Basque "Basque prisonners come home" during a demonstration in Bilbao on April 21st. Photo: AFP
09:34 CEST+02:00
Nearly every weekend finds Zigor Goieaskoetxea on the road, clocking up thousands of kilometres to visit two jailed brothers -- one in France, one in Spain.

His brothers are members of the outlawed Basque separatist group ETA, which is expected to announce its dissolution this weekend in a historic declaration.   

Seven years after it called a permanent ceasefire, the announcement definitively ends ETA's nearly four-decade campaign for an independent Basque state straddling northern Spain and southwest France.

But mediators say that without a reciprocal gesture on the conditions of 270 ETA members jailed on either side of the French-Spanish border, lasting peace in the Basque region will be elusive.

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The Spanish and French governments have long had a policy of jailing ETA prisoners hundreds of kilometres from home, to make it harder for them to communicate with each other.

In Spain, a large majority of ETA prisoners are also kept under the strictest "first degree" jail regime which bans them from obtaining leave.   

With ETA now poised to disband, the prisoners' families are hoping that will change.

Jail until 2050s

Zigor's brother Eneko, 51, is serving a 162-year sentence for plotting to murder Spanish King Juan Carlos in 1997 among other offences.   

He was shipped off to serve his term about 700 kilometres (400 miles) from his family, in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia.   

"I have to drive eight to 11 hours both there and back just to see him on the other side of a bullet-proof window for 40 short minutes," says Zigor, who lives near the southwestern French Basque city of Biarritz.

Around 700 kilometres in the other direction, in southeast France, his other brother Ibon, 52, is serving a 14-year sentence for having helped create hideouts for ETA members as well as for illegal weapons possession.

When the men's father died in 2017 neither was allowed out of prison to attend the funeral.

Ibon, under heavy surveillance in a prison in the French city of Arles, also missed the funeral of his mother who died two months ago after a serious illness.

"These conditions are inhuman... It's sadism," says 49-year-old Zigor, who hopes that ETA's disbandment will lead to a softening in the position of both the Spanish and French governments.

For Jean-Noel Etcheverry, a left-wing French activist who is a key figure in the peace process, "if nothing changes the last Basque prisoners will be in jail until the 2050s.

"How can we go about reconciliation with that sort of outlook?" he said in an interview, calling on France and Spain to end their hardline stance on Basque prisoners.

Jean-Rene Etchegaray, mayor of the French Basque city of Bayonne, warned that failure to send signs to ETA members that peace yields dividends could radicalise a new generation of young Basque separatists.

"A form of radicalisation can be seen and it must not find fertile ground," the mayor, one of the architects of the peace process, told AFP.   

It remains to be seen however whether the families of the 829 people killed and thousands injured by ETA are ready to turn the page.

'ETA will get nothing'

As a confidence-building measure, ETA last month made a surprise appeal for forgiveness for the "pain" it had caused.

But it got the cold shoulder from the influential victims' campaign group AVT, which said ETA's decision to apologise only for the deaths of those it did not consider legitimate targets, like police officers, was "shameful".   

The Spanish government also appeared unmoved, including on the conditions of Basque prisoners.

ETA "will get nothing for disbanding", Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said.   

For the moment only France -- which mainly served as a rear base for ETA and experienced little violence --has shown willingness to accede to some of ETA's demands.

In recent months a dozen of the 51 ETA members being held in France have been moved closer to their families, with more planned in the future.   

With the bulk of the prisoners -- 220 -- in Spanish prisons "the ball is mainly in Spain's court," Etcheverry said.

Jean-Francois Blanco, a lawyer who has defended several ETA members, said Spain's failure to respond to ETA's apology with a gesture would be "criminal".   

"More than ever we need a process of transitional justice," he said.

By AFP's Colette Larraburu 

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