When, on October 1, the former head of ETA Iñaki Bilbao Beaskoetxea, Iñaki from Lemona, was released from the Valdemoro jail (Madrid), it was not news. However, his release was more than just the release from prison of another inmate of the terrorist organization. That day, for the first time since 1979, when the year ended with 117, Spanish prisons were guarding less than 200 ETA prisoners. Since then, two other ETA members have left prison. The last one, Fernando Alonso, last Tuesday. With him, the number of inmates of the gang in Spanish prisons has been reduced by 197 (173 men and 24 women), when on December 31 of last year there were 220, according to data from the Interior Ministry. Another 33 terrorists remain in French prisons. Etxerat, the association of relatives of ETA prisoners, reduces this figure to 189 (and another 32 in French prisons) by excluding those inmates who have distanced themselves from the collective that groups ETA prisoners (EPPK in its Basque acronym) after to repent or for showing supporters of continuing with the attacks.
ETA members currently imprisoned in Spain are dispersed in 44 prisons. Of these, only 15 are serving a sentence in the three Basque prisons or in Pamplona, some in third degree penitentiary or semi-freedom. Another 37 ETA members are in the eight prisons located less than 350 kilometers away from both communities. Specifically, in those of Logroño (7), Burgos (5), Soria (3), Palencia (5), the Cantabrian of El Dueso (3), Valladolid (3) and the Zaragoza prisons of Zuera (8) and Daroca (3). The rest are found in 33 prisons, five of them located more than 1,000 kilometers away. In the latter there are 31 prisoners (11 of them in the Puerto III prison, in the province of Cádiz, the one that guards the most ETA members). A good part of those held in the most remote prisons are those who opposed the dissolution of the gang – a fortnight -, in addition to those who accumulate higher sentences and are far from extinguishing them, according to sources from the fight against terrorism.
In France, the situation is very different. The arrival to the presidency of Emmanuel Macron translated, at the beginning of 2018, into the beginning of a progressive transfer of ETA inmates to prisons near the border with Spain. Of the 33 imprisoned terrorists, one, former ETA leader José Antonio Urrutikoetxea, Josu Veal, is in semi-freedom in Paris waiting for the French justice to judge him and decide on his delivery to Spain. Another 22 are in the Lannemezan and Mont-de-Marsan prisons, the closest to Spain. This figure would be higher if these prisons had a women’s module. Its non-existence keeps the seven ETA members imprisoned there.
The 2008 record
This steep decline in ETA prisoners on one side of the border and the other was not in sight 12 years ago. In November 2008, with the terrorist organization in full swing campaign after breaking its truce two years earlier with the explosion of a car bomb in the parking lot of the T-4 at Madrid-Barajas airport, Spanish prisons were guarding a record number of gang inmates: 614, more than triple the current number.
Since that figure, the number of ETA incarcerated has registered a continuous decline. Thus, on October 20, 2011, the day ETA announced the definitive cessation of its terrorist activity, there were 559 inmates of the gang in Spain (plus another 114 in prisons abroad). On May 3, 2018, the day before the organization made the announcement of its dissolution public, it had dropped to 242 in Spain (in addition to 51 in France and one in Portugal).
Between the two dates there had been a constant trickle of releases, influenced by the repeal, in October 2013, of the so-called ‘Parot doctrine’, which had until then extended the stay in prison of many of them. The judgment of the Strasbourg Court that ended it led to the early release of 54 ETA members. The rest, except in the case of the few who had taken up the Via Nanclares of reintegration, they left the prison after serving their sentences in full.
That trickle has continued so far, and by various estimates it will continue for the next three and a half years. According to the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT) during that time another fifty prisoners of the terrorist organization will be released from prison. An estimate very similar to that made by Sare, the citizen platform in support of Basque prisoners that in recent years has called demonstrations in the Basque Country to demand their approach to prisons near the Basque Country. After those years, both associations predict a slowdown in the release of ETA members, since many of the rest were tried after the reform of the Criminal Code of 2003 that raised the effective execution of the sentence to 40 years. 153 gang prisoners currently have convictions as a result of that legal amendment, according to prison sources.
To try his reinsertion, Interior handles two instruments. On the one hand, the approach of prisoners to prisons in the Basque Country or closer to them – the dispersion was launched in 1989 by the socialist government of Felipe González. Since the Government of Pedro Sánchez announced the change in penitentiary policy in August 2018, 84 ETA inmates have already benefited from this measure. The other is the prison classification, which determines the possibility of enjoying permits, accessing semi-freedom and even aspiring to conditional release.
When ETA announced its dissolution, only 29 prisoners of the 242 that were then classified in the second degree or ordinary regime, which allowed them to request permits. The rest were in first grade or closed regime, the hardest. Since then, these figures have changed. According to Sare’s figures, 143 are currently still in first degree, although 49 of them have seen their situation more flexible after applying article 100.2 of the Penitentiary Regulations, which allows them to enjoy some second degree benefits. Another 42 are in second grade. In addition, Interior has given semi-freedom to a dozen inmates. The last one, Ibon Etxezarreta, whom Penitentiary Institutions put under telematic control last Monday so that he could serve the rest of his sentence at his home after totally dissociating himself from ETA and apologizing to the victims.