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French court acquits Basque ETA leader of Spain terror charges

A Paris court on Wednesday acquitted the former Basque separatist leader Josu Ternera on charges of participating to a terrorist organisation, citing insufficient evidence in the case.

French court acquits Basque ETA leader of Spain terror charges
Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, also known as Josu Ternera, poses during a photo session in Paris. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

The ruling overturns a conviction and eight-year prison term handed down in 2017 when Ternera, a historic leader of the ETA group seeking independence for the Basque Country, was tried in absentia while he was on the run from the authorities.

Ternera, whose real name is Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, headed ETA from 1977 to 1992 and is thought to have been behind a strategy of combining car bomb and shooting attacks in Spain in the 1980s.

The group’s attacks left at least 850 people dead in northern Spain and southwest France, an area considered the Basque homeland.

The group was formally dissolved in 2018.

In hiding since 2002, Ternera was convicted in absentia in France on charges he clandestinely took part in ETA’s operations from 2011 to 2013.

He was arrested in France in 2019 at a hospital in the French Alps where he was to undergo an operation.

Ternera, who appeared in court, will again face judges later this month on similar charges, of participating in ETA from 2002 to 2005, for which he had already been convicted on appeal in absentia to seven years in prison in 2010.

As both prison sentences were handed down in his absence, he was able to request a retrial for both.

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POLITICS

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

Catalan separatists hold their annual march in Barcelona on Sunday, but won't be joined this year by their leader, whose support for dialogue with Madrid has divided the movement.

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

The annual “Diada” on September 11 marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714 and has traditionally drawn vast crowds.

Under the slogan, “We’re back to win: independence!” organisers hope to mark the comeback for a movement still reeling from the failed 2017 independence bid and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our reliance on political parties is over, only the people and civil society can achieve independence,” said the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), an influential association which, over the past decade, transformed this once-minor anniversary into a massive annual event.

READ MORE: Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad? 

But the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement, has been very critical of dialogue started between the Catalan government of Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist, and Madrid.

It said the “October 1 victory,” when separatists organised a 2017 independence referendum despite a ban by Madrid, and the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament “must not be wasted in dialogue with the Spanish state and on internal squabbles”.

This year, Aragones has decided not to attend the march.

Last year, his presence drew derisive whistles from some of the 108,000 people who turned out to demonstrate at what was one of the smallest turnouts in a decade, police figures showed.

“It wouldn’t make much sense if my presence there was used against the government I run,” he told regional public television on Wednesday, referring to his separatist coalition which groups the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

Aragones belongs to ERC, which favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC wants to maintain a confrontational approach.

Other ERC government members won’t attend Sunday’s march, while JxC representatives will.

A movement in crisis

Gone are the years when vast crowds would paralyse the streets of Barcelona, when the Diada drew more than a million participants in the run-up to the 2017 independence bid. 

Five years on from that frenetic autumn, when the Catalan government made a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, the context is very different.

Those behind the bid were arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms by Spain’s top court, although they were later pardoned.

READ MORE: Spanish intelligence did spy on Catalan separatists with court approval: report

Others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatists sharply at odds over how to move forward.

ERC — a small player in Spain’s national parliament, but which has offered crucial support to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government — says it is fully committed to dialogue.

That hasn’t changed despite recent revelations that the Spanish intelligence service had spied on separatist politicians. But the hardliners are running out of patience, disappointed with politicians whom they see as reneging on their promises.

“We at the ANC don’t understand how the Catalan leader is happy to pose for photos with the leadership in Madrid but doesn’t want to do the same with hundreds of thousands of Catalans who want independence,” the group said.

Sunday’s march will be a delicate moment for a very weakened movement.

“The context has changed radically following the pandemic and now with the war in Ukraine,” said Ana Sofia Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University, suggesting people have more immediate preoccupations.

“The mood among the people is different now, even among those who back Catalan independence,” she said. They want “the politicians to resolve the problems” that people are facing in daily life.

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