Arnaldo Otegi not yet released from prison

Arnaldo Otegi.
Arnaldo Otegi. Author: Berria.
OPINION. Basque pro-independence left leader Arnaldo Otegi is today being released from prison, where he has spent six years and a half after being convicted for trying to re-establish the Batasuna political party, which had been declared illegal by Spanish courts. Nationalia released today this article by Aureli Argemí, who at that time knew and often talked to Otegi, a key figure in the end of ETA's violent struggle.

The article's title might look like a lie in so many words, as it is widely known that Arnaldo Otegi is today being released from prison after more than six years. But I chose this title for one simple reason: Arnaldo Otegi has been and remains a free man. Not only this. He remains an unfailing activist for freedom, for the liberation of his people, the Basque people, to such an extent that some have sought to deprive him from the same freedom he is fighting for. This freedom is certainly not the same as the one that those who arrested, tried, condemned and put him in jail claim to defend.

These words just came to my mind while I am thinking about the feelings that Arnaldo Otegi and his friends and colleagues are experiencing today, about the feelings that his opponents or enemies, those who would like to see him forever in jail, are also experiencing today.

I count myself among the people who are close to him. I have known him for a long time. I have spoken to him, conversed with him, argued with him, in a relaxed and open way, always on the issue of how to put in practice, ever more frequently, a principle on which both of us totally agreed: it is only fighting for rights that peace can be built, be it in his country, in mine and in many others -the forbidden nations- that never cease to look for ways to free themselves.

Arnaldo knew that I had chosen the path of words, of commitment, of ballots, of civil society awareness in the first place. What is more: in my last conversation with him, some 10 years ago, I told him that, in my opinion, overcoming all forms of armed violence was an urgent task. That violence hurt us all. I think he had reached the same conclusion. He told me that he, along like-minded people, was drafting a plan to build a civic-political platform that should be able to overcome the pitfalls of violence and the give-and-take decentralization-rencentralization game that Basque semi-autonomy had turned into. It was needed, so he said, to launch an organization that could show the need for a new stage in the recovery of the freedom of the Basque Country. That one should be a strictly political organization to which Basques felt invited to participate in, as long as the organization was acceptable to everyone and bore a common national project for them. Those actively fighting for freedom should be the ones firstly called upon. To achieve this, without excluding anybody, it was needed to include the dossier of reconciliation between the sides of the Basque conflict on the political agenda. I can recall that, in our last conversation, I told him once and again that I was ready to act as a mediator, if such an offer could be of any help. He was aware -since he had been one of its promoters- that I was a member of a mediator group in which European Parliament and international civil society organizations' members, such as CIEMEN, were involved.

Undoubtedly, Arnaldo's call had an impact -or helped have one. His political group was launched, and 10 years later on, ETA violence is in its final stages. However, it is scandalous that the issue of still pending reconciliation -which should be fostered from the circles of well-established powers- has not yet been addressed. Those powers include political parties and the media, which hold considerable clout among widely misinformed Spanish and French public opinions as far as the situation in the Basque Country is concerned.

Prisons continue to be the answer to institutional shortcomings as regards reconciliation, which remains absolutely essential to solve the problems of the Basques and of other peoples close to them. Arnaldo Otegi has been one of the victims of that approach. In his case, jail has become the punishment for a situation of violence that should have ended long ago, if it should have ever existed at all. Arnaldo Otegi had joined the ranks of those who think that putting an end to violence was a way to bring triumph to the respect for the rights of peoples, for the dignity of their members, for a just peace, without winners or losers.

Arnaldo Otegi is a clear witness and main figure of that violence, as his prison years has proved. But Arnaldo Otegi has not yet been released from prison: he will only be fully released when freedom itself becomes an asset shared by everybody.

I therefore join those who are today welcoming back Arnaldo, to those who expect from him the continuation of a project that still lacks strength to full achieve its goals. Arnaldo, welcome to the home that is being built, a home to which you are an essential architect. All the best.

Aureli Argemí is president-emeritus of CIEMEN.