A French court has sentenced Ibon Goieaskoetxea Arronategui, a former member of the Basque separatist group ETA, to 14 years in prison for forging leases on residences that were used as hideouts and weapons caches by ETA militants. But the court acquitted the 49-year-old of charges of theft with violence and forcible confinement.
The verdict was pronounced late on Wednesday by the Cour d'Assises Spéciale — a special criminal court established to hear cases involving defendants accused of major felonies such as acts of terrorism.
Arronategui has also been banned from ever entering France again, meaning he will be extradited to Spain as soon as he has served his sentence in France. He is also still subject to a European arrest warrant.
Arronategui served as a "logistics" expert for ETA — an acronym for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom) — a group that has killed 823 people in France and Spain in a bloody four-decade campaign for an independent Basque state.
Known as "Emil" to some, Arronategui was tasked with renting housing for the group's militants using fake names. He was arrested in February 2010 in Normandy, in northwest France. He was tried in 2013 for being a member of the ETA, receiving a seven-year prison sentence; he was tried again in 2014, for being an accomplice to robberies, and sentenced to a further five years. This latest sentence will absorb the terms already handed down.
During his first trial, Arronategui had refused to recognize the authority of a French court and had announced that he would only answer "to the Basque people." He and five other defendants who were also being tried then started chanting "Eusko Gudariak gara!" ("We are the warriors of the Basque people!").
Ibon's younger brother Eneko Goieaskoetxea Arronategui — also a member of ETA — is suspected of being involved in a plot to kill Spanish King Juan Carlos during his inaugural visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in 1997. Arrested in Cambridge, England, in 2011, Eneko is currently detained in Spain, where he is awaiting trial on 15 separate charges.
Half a century of bloodshed
The Basque country is an autonomous community of northern Spain that straddles the western foothills of the French Pyrenees. The region has a population of nearly 3 million, and an estimated 1 million people speak the Basque regional language. The region's largest cities include Bilbao, Pamplona, and the southwestern French town of Bayonne.
ETA was formed in 1959, at the height of Franco's dictatorial rule, by a group of students dissatisfied with the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party. What started off as an armed revolutionary student group soon morphed into a separatist organization.
By the 70s, the group was experiencing significant internal tension, and many of ETA's members called for a separation of the group's armed struggle and its political activities. The marriage of the two movements was later symbolized in the group's logo, which depicts a snake (politics) wrapped around an axe (the armed struggle).
Considered a terrorist organization by Spain, France, the UK, and the US, ETA is known for its violent tactics, which include assassinations, bomb attacks, and kidnappings. In 1995, the group attempted to assassinate Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. It struck again in December 2006, when a bomb attack on a Madrid airport killed two.
The struggle to contain the group has also been violent. From 1983 to 1986, illegal death squads staffed by former French, Spanish, and Portuguese army and police officers, known as GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups), murdered 17 ETA militants in France alone.
In November 2008, the head of the ETA's military unit, Garikoïtz Aspiaru Rubina — also known as Txeroki — was arrested in France. Three years later, the group brought to a close half a century of bloodshed when it renounced the use of arms.
For Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet, an expert in terrorism and political violence and a professor at Manchester University, Arronategui's sentencing marks a major turn in the separatist group's history. "The group no longer has the means to remain underground," he told VICE News. "There is no longer the level of logistical support there was 10 years ago."
But despite multiple arrests and the 2011 ceasefire, ETA still has weapons squirreled away in arms caches. On May 28, French police discovered 30 guns, explosives, and camouflage gear in a house in the southwestern French coastal town of Biarritz.
Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Guittet said that many of the group's former members were still being hunted by police, and that further arrests were likely. "The movement is finding its way," he added. "There are attempts to normalize [shift to more mainstream forms of activism] but it's still early days."
Guittet also said that a lack of resources and the dissuasive power of lengthy sentences like Arronegui's had crippled the organization. The group "no longer has a choice" but to change, he added.
Basque separatists often struggle to find a place in the country's political landscape. Leftist nationalist party Batasuna (Basque for "unity") was banned in 2003 over its ties to ETA and was eventually dissolved 10 years later. Another nationalist party — Sortu ("create") — was founded in 2011 and remains legally and politically active to this day.
In 2010, an International Contact Group (ICG) was formed to engage with the major stakeholders and to "facilitate and enable the achievement of political normalization in the Basque Country." On June 11, the French National Assembly in Paris hosted a Humanitarian Conference for Peace in the Basque Country in an attempt to resolve what has often been described as Europe's oldest armed conflict.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter :@pierrelouis_c
Image via 20111020-euskaditaaskatasuna/Flickr