Bilbao roared with chants to bring Basque political prisoners closer to home, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in Basque Country on Saturday.
An estimated 273 members of the revolutionary Basque Country and Freedom — or ETA — group are currently behind bars, say the protesters, but only two of them are held in Basque country and over one third are in France. Other estimates are much higher, but the actual figure remains unreported by the government.
The 27-year-old policy of scattering the Basque prisoners and holding them far from their homes has been used to separate families and crush morale among prisoners and their families. The dispersion has had a financial toll on visiting families, who may also have growing complications crossing the border into France.
The Marxist-inspired ETA has been widely categorized as a "terrorist" group for its use of violence, taken up during a period of brutal repression by the Francisco Franco regime, but it declared in 2011 that it would cease its “armed activity” to secure Basque independence. It has also kept a ceasefire since 2010, while politicians supporting Basque autonomy and separation have performed increasingly well in elections.
Some relatives of victims of ETA violence showed up to the protest for the first time, though the AVT, an association of relatives of victims, opposed a blanket end to the dispersion policy, instead advocating case-by-case evaluations, reported AP.
ETA has demanded the release of its political prisoners as part of a negotiated process of peace, while offering to recognize Spanish law as well as restitution for the victims of the armed conflict, but conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused to negotiate any issue with the separatist group.
Basque Country has tried to organize independence referendums several times, with as much as 95 percent of voters supporting independence, but the Supreme Court has failed to recognize the results. Still, the region has more autonomy than any other region in Spain, having its own parliament, police force, education and tax collection.