THE car bomb that Inés del Río’s unit of ETA, a Basque separatist group, planted in Madrid’s República Dominicana square killed ten people and maimed many more. They were not her unit’s only victims. The list includes 13 others, targets or passers-by. One was an American executive, Eugene Brown, visiting Madrid on business.
Like all Spanish murderers found guilty at trial, Ms Del Río was sent to jail. There is no life term or death sentence in Spain. Her sentences totaled 3,828 years, but ran concurrently, with the law specifying a maximum sentence of 30 years. Her release, including further reductions for good behaviour, was due after 21 years, in 2008. But a new interpretation of the law, first introduced for ETA members, took away the years for good behaviour, postponing her release until 2017. On October 21st the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg declared this interpretation illegal. Ms Del Río was freed the following day.
That is not the end of the matter. Fifty-three other ETA members, responsible for dozens of killings, must be released too. So must other terrorists, including one from a state-backed dirty-war group that attacked ETA targets in the 1980s. A dozen rapists and murderers will also go free. In all, more than 70 of Spain’s most violent prisoners should be released as the country’s courts uphold their appeals.
Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) government has fought the ECHR all the way. It takes an unbendingly tough line on ETA, and has accused previous left-leaning governments of being soft on terrorism. Now Mr Rajoy is in a bind. He has previously marched alongside influential victims’ groups that are loudly and angrily backed by the right-wing press. They are calling on him to refuse to obey the ECHR ruling. Since Britain has ignored an ECHR order in 2005 to give voting rights to prisoners, the argument goes, Spain can also ignore the Strasbourg court.
Mr Rajoy has remained silent, leaving ministers to explain that there is little choice but to allow courts to release the prisoners. But on October 23rd he met victims’ groups, who are planning a protest, to reassure them that there would be no sudden mass release.
In fact ETA’s ageing prisoners are less of a danger than the rapists and murderers who will also go free. A weakened ETA declared a unilateral and permanent ceasefire in October 2011. As was not the case with previous ceasefires, it has stuck to this one. The group has yet to hand over its arms. The release of prisoners should smooth the path towards such an event.
Many in the Basque area, including the regional government of the moderate Basque National Party leader, Iñigo Urkullu, believe it is time to finish the peace process. “The government has a chance to do what it has failed to do in two years–become an active agent for peace,” says Fernando Barrena of Sortu, an increasingly powerful separatist movement. They would like to see a softer approach to ETA’s 600 remaining prisoners, many of whom are kept in prisons hundreds of miles from their families.
But Mr Rajoy has done nothing beyond promising that the security forces’ full might will fall on ETA if it returns to arms. ETA negotiators were ejected from Norway when disarmament failed to happen earlier this year. With victims’ groups now stirring, Mr Rajoy is unlikely to budge soon. ETA, once more, must act alone.
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