Bob Newland on an imprisoned Basque veteran

Josu Urrutikoetxea was a key figure in the Basque movement Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and played a major role in ending the armed conflict in the Basque Country and Spain. He led peace negotiations on behalf of ETA from the 1980s. In 1989 he was arrested in the middle of a truce and spent ten years in prison. Josu led further negotiations from 2005 to 2007 in Geneva and from 2011 to 2013 in Oslo.

As was necessary for such negotiations to take place, whether they were in Northern Ireland, South Africa or the Basque Country, these talks were covered by protection for those engaged in the process. Josu had such protection from the Spanish government, with technical agreement from the French and diplomatic protection from the Swiss and Norwegians, who hosted the talks. As a result of these negotiations ETA declared an end to armed struggle in 2011. Their weapons were handed over in April 2017 in Bayonne, and on 3rd May 2018 Josu Urrutikoetxea announced in Geneva that ETA had agreed on its own initiative to dissolve itself.

Following the success of this peace initiative, the French government have brought two charges of “criminal conspiracy with terrorist intent” against Josu. These relate to periods when he was actively involved in negotiations and under diplomatic protection. He was due to appear before the court at the end of October 2020 and again in February 2021. Proceedings were further postponed until June and September 2021. Meanwhile Josu, who is suffering from cancer, languishes in a French prison.

Successes in conflict resolution in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Basque Country have been trumpeted throughout the world as outstanding examples of how to end some of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. None of these could have been achieved without the courageous actions of peace negotiators. Ronnie Kasrils, from the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), helped bring the IRA to the negotiating table. Gerry Adams brought his experience in Northern Ireland to support the negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government.

There remain many such conflicts which deserve a similar intervention and resolution. It is crucial to that hope that negotiators are afforded appropriate protection to do their work, and this should be respected after the event whether it is successful or not.

Sadly, this is not an isolated example of states reneging on protections offered to peace negotiators. India has initiated legal proceedings against Yasin Malik relating to attempts to resolve the Kashmir crisis. Columbia has failed to respect the security protocols ratified by its own government, the FARC and the ELN which were guaranteed by Norway and Cuba. Recent military actions by the Turkish government have destroyed the peace process in Kurdistan.

In the case of Josu Urrutikoetxea, an international appeal has been established urging the French government to respect the protections afforded to him, immediately release him from custody and withdraw the charges against him. This has already been signed by a number of Nobel Prize winners and a large number of international politicians, lawyers writers and other personalities. They include Peter Hain and Gerry Adams, South African peace negotiators Ronnie Kasrils and Essop Pahad, Noam Chomsky, and Ken Loach.

If readers know of anyone in a prominent role politically, in the arts or civil society who might sign the international appeal, please contact Thomas Lacoste. A general petition is also circulating and can be accessed at: https://www.change.org/-Free-Josu.

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