The persecution of a newspaper

Observations on Spain

Pello Zubiria lies in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Madrid, suffering from pneumonia and a degenerative disease called ankylosing spondylitis, which causes the bones in his spine to fuse together.

Zubiria is here because, on 20 February, the Spanish Guardia Civil raided the offices of Euskaldunon Egunkaria, Spain's leading Basque-language newspaper, and arrested ten members of staff. As a former managing editor, Zubiria was among those accused of helping the violent separatist group ETA in its campaign for an independent Basque country.

Zubiria's delicate condition was ignored when he was imprisoned, and the pain became so great that he had a nervous breakdown and attempted to kill himself. To date, only four of the journalists arrested have been released on bail, and each has complained of torture by the Spanish authorities.

Martxelo Otamendi, the current editor of Egunkaria, told a press conference upon his release: "The treatment was merciless, brutal." During the five days that he was held at a police station, he was twice suffocated with a bag while being verbally abused.

This is the latest example of Spain's unique interpretation of the war on terror, where Basque newspapers, cultural magazines, radio stations, language schools for adults and even children's language schools are accused of harbouring terrorist activity. There is no disputing the criminality of ETA, which has caused the deaths of more than 800 people in a bombing and shooting campaign since 1968; but the Basque community as a whole is threatened by the government's heavy-handed clampdown.

Although the Spanish media have already decided Egunkaria is guilty, the paper has vigorously denied any connection to ETA. "There is absolutely no truth in these allegations," said a spokesman. "The paper is subsidised by the Basque government and we are audited by it every year. These are public accounts."

The lack of hard evidence for the arrests led the secretary-general of Reporters sans Frontieres, Robert Menard, to write a letter to the Spanish justice minister, Jose MarIa Michavila. Other non-governmental organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists and Amnesty International have publicly pledged their support to the paper.

Following the closure of Egunkaria, 100,000 protesters crowded into the streets of the Basque city of Donostia. The demonstration was attended by artists, labour groups and the clergy. Also present were members of each Basque political party and the Basque government - which is semi-autonomous from the Spanish government, and controls areas such as taxation and education.

Meanwhile, Pello Zubiria remains in hospital, under arrest. The Spanish courts have now sentenced him and five Egunkaria journalists to "unconditional imprisonment", but he cannot be moved until his doctors say otherwise.

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