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  ZNet Commentary: Freedom for Josu Lariz Iriondo










July 09, 2004

Freedom for Josu Lariz Iriondo

By Marie Trigona

Josu Lariz Iriondo-social activist and Basque political prisoner-for the first time is getting to know the streets of Buenos Aires, with a map in hand and plenty of friends to answer questions about directions. "I was inside for 2 years calm, with no noise, no traveling and now I have to take busses and deal with the noisy streets," Josu said jokingly, just a week after he was released from Argentina's high security international terrorism prison.

On June 18 Federal Judge Claudio Bonadío ordered Josu's release after spending 18 months imprisoned while facing extradition to Spain under charges of being a member of the Basque liberation organization ETA. During the extradition trial on June 8 and 9, hundreds of Argentines mobilized outside the courthouse to demand Josu's immediate release and denial of extradition to Spain. Hundreds of fellow activists came out to pressure the courts and politicians for the "freedom for Josu and all political prisoners."

Before he was illegally imprisoned in Argentina, Josu lived in Uruguay for 15 years in exile where he worked as a master chef in Basque cuisine. He opened a restaurant along with other Basque friends and married a Uruguayan. Since he exiled in Uruguay, Spain requested Uruguay to extradite him to be tried by Spanish courts. The Uruguayan courts denied his extradition in 1992.

However, increasing pressures from Spain led the government to expel Josu from Uruguay. In November 2002 Josu was arrested by Uruguayan police, which had special aid from Spanish security forces and was then kidnapped by the Interpol (international police), dropped in the Buenos Aires New Berry Airport and sent to prison to face extradition from Argentina.

Josu recollects how he arrived to Argentina, his two years in jail and how important it is to act in solidarity with prisoners and launch campaigns for the release of all political prisoners. Josu explains: "The Interpol brought me here to Argentina, the Federal police came to the airport and took me to the international terrorism prison. It was then I realized I wasn't going to be immediately taken to Spain. I didn't know anyone here in Argentina. But from that first day I had a lawyer and a mattress. Solidarity was from the first day. In the two years I never lacked solidarity. Being so far away from my country and then Uruguay, I could never forget the solidarity of the Argentine people."

"We are demanding that Josu is not sent to a Spanish prison, to a country where Basque people are persecuted and tortured by biased courts," said Joaquin, an youth activist with the unemployed workers organization CTD. Currently, in Spain there are more than 700 political prisoners and 4,000 political refugees. The Spanish state systematically has persecuted Basque people who affirm their right to sovereignty and independence using tactics of arrests, torture and abuse.

During the extradition trial, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel testified that Basque prisoners suffer torture inside Spanish jails. Federal Judge Claudio Bonadío, in response, said that Argentina will ask Spain to guarantee that Josu "will not be tortured." Amnesty International has reported numerous cases of Basque prisoners being tortured inside Spanish jails. Even the United Nations has accused Spain of torture. Defense lawyer Eduardo Soares responded the prosecutor's promise by saying that the Spanish state is not capable of guaranteeing anything for the Basque people and that the only way to ensure that Josu is not abused or tortured by the Spanish state is not to extradite him.

Josu explained that his defense did not think that he was going to be released. "The judge was really hard, but through the testimonies of the defense it was clear that the Basque-Spanish conflict is clearly a political conflict. And that they torture Basque prisoners in Spain like they do in Iraq and many other places." Ironically, the trial made it clear that Josu was facing extradition for political reasons.

The roots to the persecution of the Basque people on the part of the Spanish and French states traces back for centuries. "For me to be Basque is to maintain intact and defend our land and sovereignty. The Spanish state has impeded our freedom for centuries." Josu tells us that as a child he was prohibited from speaking Basque in school. During Fransisco Franco's dictatorship the Basque language was made illegal.

One of Josu's first acts of resistance was hanging the Goriak (Basque flag) in the streets of his village during a traditional festival. However, the end of Franco's rule did not change the situation for the Basque people who continue to struggle for independence from Spain and France. Although the Basque language is no longer illegal, people are systematically banned from reading the language due to the state's action to shut down newspapers. Political and labour organizations are also illegal.

During the extradition trial unemployed workers and human rights groups protested outside the courthouse to support Josu and the struggle for political prisoners. Unemployed workers, with their faces covered and sticks in hand created security lines to prevent cars and police from entering the blockade in front of the courthouse. Demonstrators made plenty of noise to make sure that the judge and prosecutor heard the drums and singing from the protestors inside the courtroom.

Josu said that during the trial he could hear friends protesting outside the courthouse, he added that hearing hundreds of Argentines sharing his struggle kept him strong in the difficult and stressful time. "The other day in the trial I saw everyone inside and outside the courthouse, people who are struggling for a Basque political prisoner-I could never forget that," said Josu.

During interviews, unemployed workers made a clear connection between the struggle in Argentina and oppressed people's struggle in other parts of the world. "The politics of exploiting and oppressing people to make more profits and concentrate wealth in the hands of capitalist powers is part of international politics, its worldwide. The best way to resist is to unite struggles world wide and back up activists around the world who are fighting against invasion and oppression," explained Willy historian and participant in an unemployed workers organization.

Historically, the struggle for political prisoners has created a nexus between social activists world wide, going beyond nationality or ethnicity. The struggle to save Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti from execution in the US lasted six years before they were electrocuted in 1927. Working class around the world mobilized tens of thousands to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, marking the largest protests seen in history at the time.

The trial was used to repress social protest. The courts arbitrarily chose the death and robbery in the South Bantree factory in Massachusetts to launch a repressive campaign against labour organizers, especially targeting anarchists. Judge Webster Tayer, who condemned Sacco and Vanzetti to death said, "to be an anarchist is to be on the side of crime."

"Our protest is to mark how the courts work in function of the interests of those on top, in function of the capitalist against the working class," said Gustavo Beliz, a protestor during Josu's trial. Spain holds a lot of weight in Argentina. Spain is Argentina's number one capital investor, with the Spanish oil refinery and company Repsol as the largest foreign company in Argentina.

Josu's release is a victory that reminds us that struggling for political prisoners is a priority in the struggle for emancipation against exploitation. For Josu it was surprising that the unemployed workers came out to struggle for a prisoner from a country that is so far away. However, unemployed workers made a clear connection.

"We've been persecuted and had arbitrary arrests in the barrios where we are organized. We've had the support from other organizations and people from other countries. If we don't defend ourselves, no one is going to defend us-if we weren't here surely, our companero Josu would already be in a jail in Spain," said Joaquin.

As Josu walked out of jail, organizers from Argentina's coordinator for political prisoners were outside to meet with Josu and celebrate his release. He came out with a Basque flag tied around his neck, which fellow inmates had written each an inscription to him. Josu now struggles for refugee status in Argentina, which would allow him to stay legally here. He would like to continue working as a cook.

Freedom for all political prisoners!