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A Step Backward in Spain

September 14, 2002

Law enforcement has the right to hunt down and capture terrorists to put a stop to their merciless mass murder. But political expression deserves to be free, even when spewed by the political wing of a vile terrorist organization.

In Madrid, Judge Baltasar Garzon thinks differently. On Aug. 26, Garzon ordered a three-year suspension of the political activities of Batasuna, the Basque region's second-largest political party. The judge's order calls for the confiscation of Batasuna property and banning of its demonstrations and public meetings.

Garzon's order only inflames an old and bitter conflict between Madrid and the Basques of northern Spain. The Basque conflict began in earnest in 1959, the year that ETA, a Basque radical-left paramilitary organization, was born. In calling for independence, ETA's violent campaign has claimed about 800 lives since 1968. Batasuna is widely considered to be the political wing of ETA.

The United States, the European Union and the Spanish government consider ETA, short for Basque Homeland and Freedom, a terrorist organization. Since the mostly Marxist group rescinded its self-imposed 14-month cease-fire in November 1999, ETA members have resumed killing Spanish government officials, police officers, journalists and military personnel. They also have put bombs in highly populated areas and have killed scores of civilians.

The Basque country was granted autonomy in 1980, and a 1986 ruling by the Spanish Supreme Court legalized Batasuna as a political party after six years of efforts by the Spanish government to block its legalization.

What triggered the latest suspension of Batasuna was its consistent refusal to condemn terrorist activities, including the latest one Aug. 4, in which a car bomb killed a 6-year-old girl in her home and a man standing on a corner waiting for a bus and left more than 25 people wounded. ETA claimed responsibility for the bombing about a week later.

Cracking down on military wings of political parties that participate in violent activities is warranted, but prohibiting gatherings and speech in the public square just drives them underground. Spain must deal with ETA. But it cannot do that effectively by clamping down on Batasuna and its right to nonviolent protest.

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