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Saturday, 31 August, 2002, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Spain's separatists silenced
Batasuna supporters with flags
Batasuna is seen by many as the political face of ETA

It is difficult for people outside Spain to imagine the strength of feeling in the country against Batasuna, which is widely seen as the political wing of the Basque separatist group ETA and as being equally responsible for more than three decades of violence.

Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar
Mr Aznar has succeeded in outlawing Batasuna

But for me, one of the more shocking aspects of covering the conflict has been the language used by Spanish Government officials towards their Basque political colleagues.

So when Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar this week referred to members of Batasuna as "human garbage", it was just another insult in a long-running session of mud-slinging, which has probably done as much to divide the political community as ETA violence has.

Now that Senor Aznar has finally succeeded in winning both parliamentary and judicial approval for outlawing Batasuna, it seems there is no going back to civil communication. And the vast majority of Spaniards are right behind him.

Little distinction, if any, is made by the public between the seven elected representatives of Batasuna in the Basque regional parliament - or the 900 Batasuna town councillors - and those who fire the bullets or plant the bombs.

'Super judge'

And while there is evidence showing that activists may graduate from one form of promoting the separatist cause to the other, before this new law was passed actually proving the link in court has been elusive.

At least that was until the man known in Spain as "super judge" made it his personal mission to eradicate Batasuna from the political map, and ensure the party received no more government funding.

Baltasar Garzon
In Spain, Mr Garzon is known as "super judge"
Judge Baltasar Garzon - often depicted in cartoons wearing superhero red tights - rose to international fame over his bid to secure the extradition of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

But for years before, during and after that high-profile legal action, he has been known in Spain for his one-man crusade against ETA and its political allies.

While a new law passed in June makes it illegal for any political party to advocate radical changes against Spain's existing political structures, he believes he has established - in any case - the financial and organisational links that prove Batasuna and ETA are one and the same.

The argument is familiar - we have heard it repeatedly during the Northern Ireland peace process, when discussing the IRA and Sinn Fein.

Negotiating tool

What is different here is that other governments faced with violent internal conflicts have sensibly wanted to keep armed and political wings of paramilitary organisations separate - precisely so they can have someone to negotiate with.

The coinciding judicial and political moves against Batasuna suggest that Spain is ready and willing to give up any prospect of talks, now or in the future.

And while this would normally be out of step with international political opinion on conflict resolution, the climate since 11 September has hardened towards listed terrorist groups and those who offer them logistical support, or agree with their aims.

Perhaps that is one reason why Spain has acted against Batasuna now, taking a much more hardline approach towards the party, knowing it will not have to fight off criticism from outside.

People I talked to used the word "immigrants", when they meant ordinary Spanish or non-Basques living in the Basque country

Inside the Basque Country, it is a different story. The first time I went there, it was like stepping into Alice in Wonderland. Everything I had heard or read in Madrid had to be turned on its head.

Though you never hear about them in the Spanish media, probably around half the people living in the Basque region support the idea of independence in the long-term, even if they would never take up arms to defend it.

Around 10% support the more extreme branch of Basque nationalism represented by Batasuna - until now the legal, public face of ETA.

There are regular, often violent demonstrations, against what the radicals describe as "oppression" by the Spanish state.

Protests against the alleged mistreatment of prisoners, and the fact that their families often have to travel thousands of miles to visit, owing to the government's policy of scattering ETA prisoners around the country.

Many of the marchers are middle-aged women, with dyed blond hair and smudged pink lipstick - the working mums of ETA activists, who have been radicalised by the likes of Batasuna for their own political ends.

High standard of living

People I talked to used the word 'immigrants', when they meant ordinary Spanish or non-Basques living in the Basque country, or "unionists" when they meant those who favour keeping Spain in one piece.

ETA supporters with flags
Around 10% of Basques support Batasuna
It is all too strange, especially when you see the high standard of living enjoyed by the majority of Basque residents, search in vain for a real Basque grievance, and learn more about the exact level of autonomy the Basque region currently enjoys - which as any Spaniard is quick to tell you, is the highest in Europe.

When police moved in to close one of the Batasuna offices earlier this week, they were greeted by an angry mob of 300 party supporters.

The question now is, what will happen to Batasuna voters now they have been denied a legitimate, political voice?

A few brave critics of the government are warning that without Batasuna, these noisy activists will go underground, and join in the fight for ETA, body and soul.

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See also:

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