ETA Debate Sharpens in Spain ; the Prison Release of a Key Member of the Separatist Group Has Divided the Country

Article excerpt

The most controversial decision that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has made in his three years in office was not to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq or legalize gay marriage. Instead, it was the prime minister's move this month to convert the prison sentence of a high- profile member of ETA, the Basque separatist group, to house arrest.

The decision has convulsed Spain and sparked the most significant crisis of the prime minister's term, sharpening a growing national debate ahead of upcoming elections over how best to deal with ETA.

Though the government ceased discussions with ETA when the group - which it considers a terrorist organization - upended a self- declared cease-fire in December, the opposition Popular Party (PP) has found in the sentence conversion an opportunity to dramatically escalate its criticism of the government. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands marched in a demonstration organized by the PP - the first time in Spanish history that an opposition party has called for a protest against the government's antiterrorist policies.

In November 2006, ETA member Inaki de Juana Chaos began a hunger strike to protest a second jail sentence, which he received for "inciting terrorism" (he had already completed an 18-year term for the murder of 25 people).

After 115 days on strike, he was reportedly near death. On March 2, Spain approved Mr. de Juana's transfer first to a Basque Country hospital, and later home, where he will remain under house arrest until he finishes his sentence. "One of the differences between terrorists and us is that for us, life is important, no matter whether the person is a terrorist or not, and this is where our moral legitimacy derives," said Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

But the PP believed it was not morals that guided the decision, but weakness and deception. Although it had granted grudging support to the government when ETA declared a cease-fire in March 2006, the party's members soon began criticizing Mr. Zapatero for pandering to terrorists and threatening Spain's unity. When ETA blew up an airport parking garage in December, killing two, it brought an end to the fledgling peace process, but not, according to PP members, to the government's willingness to negotiate with terrorists. …