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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK

World: Europe

Basque leaders freed

Arnaldo Ortegi, one of the main Basque nationalist leaders still free

The entire leadership of the Basque separatist party, Herri Batasuna, has been released from jail after Spain's constitutional court overturned their convictions.

The BBC's Daniel Schweimler: "Criticism of the court's decision came from the families of ETA's victims"
The majority verdict ruled that the jailing in 1997 of the 23 party leaders for having links with the illegal separatist group ETA was unconstitutional.

One of the group was released last year due to ill health.

Local media said that more than 1,000 supporters had gathered at the gates at one of the prisons in northern Spain to celebrate the releases. 7

After the verdict, Herri Batasuna official Joseba Permach said the state had no option but to free the prisoners following what he called " an aberration of justice".

Controversial decision

[ image:  ]
The decision should have been announced last week, but was postponed since the members of the court were reported to be split - a sign of the controversial nature of what they were being asked to do.

The Herri Batasuna party used a video showing members of armed ETA guerrillas as part of their electoral campaign in 1996.

The tape was seized before it could be broadcast.

The decision to jail the whole party leadership was met with outrage in the northern Basque region, but general joy in the rest of Spain.

The Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar called it an important step in the fight against terrorism.

Shortly afterwards, the courts closed a newspaper, Egin, which had close links with the Basque separatist movement.

Changing times

[ image: The party says it models much if its philosophy on that of Sinn Feinn in Norther Ireland]
The party says it models much if its philosophy on that of Sinn Feinn in Norther Ireland
The BBC's Madrid Correspondent, Daniel Schweimler, says much has changed since the Herri Batasuna leadership were sent to prison.

The party changed its name to Euskal Herittarrok for last year's regional elections, in which it increased its share of the vote.

The party's new leadership is also seen as having a more moderate stance than their predecessors and says it has modelled much of its strategy on that of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

Last September, ETA declared a ceasefire which so far has held.

Perhaps more significantly the authorities in both Spain and France arrested a number of high-profile ETA members, seriously weakening the armed organisation.

As a result both ETA and its political wing have been pressured into embracing peaceful means to try to achieve independence for the Basque region.

Correspondents say the announcement of the releases could also boost the fragile peace as ETA has made freedom for the former HB leaders a key demand in talks with the government.

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Internet Links

Spain's Interior Ministry (in Spanish)

Euskal Herritarrok (in Basque)

Basque Country Journal

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