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Spain sends ailing ETA inmate home

Basque separatist who was on a hunger strike is moved to house arrest in his homeland.

March 02, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Months into a hunger strike, Jose Ignacio de Juana's rib cage protrudes above spindly arms and legs that have been lashed to a hospital bed. Force-feeding tubes to keep him alive run from his nose.

The startling image of the convicted Basque killer began circulating last month. On Thursday, the Spanish government ordered De Juana released from a prison hospital and placed under house arrest.

Officials invoked a law that allows such an act of leniency when a prisoner is gravely ill. The government seemed squeamish at letting him die in custody.

"What distinguishes us from terrorists," said Jose Blanco, a top official with the ruling Socialist Party, "is we do not want people to die." But the opposition immediately accused the government of succumbing to the blackmail of convicted terrorists who manipulate international opinion for their benefit.

At issue is the broader question of how to deal with Basque separatists who last year declared a permanent cease-fire after nearly four decades of killings and sabotage -- only to resume attacks in December.

De Juana, a former leader of the Basque separatist group ETA, was transported Thursday from the hospital in Madrid where he had been interned to one in his Basque homeland following the government decision.

Through associates, De Juana announced he was ending the hunger strike that he had waged for more than 114 days and that reportedly had caused his weight to drop to about 100 pounds. Authorities had begun force-feeding him and at least once he had ripped the tubes from his body, which medical personnel then reattached.

Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, appearing before reporters, said he decided to commute De Juana's jail time after consulting with doctors who said they thought he would die in a matter of weeks.

"The state has to be humane even with those who did not act this way with their victims," Perez Rubalcaba said.

Opposition groups denounced the decision, which they said drastically weakened Spain's ability to confront terrorism by ETA, which stands for Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom.

Mariano Rajoy, head of the rightist Popular Party, said the government's decision to remand De Juana to house arrest was an insult to ETA's victims.

A court sentenced De Juana, 51, to prison in 1987 for his role in the deaths of 25 people in ETA attacks. He was about to be released last year when authorities pressed new charges against him because of articles he wrote in a Basque newspaper that were seen as threatening new attacks.

Those charges resulted in a sentence of 13 years in prison, and De Juana soon began a hunger strike in protest. The sentence was later reduced by a higher court; at his release on Thursday, he had about one more year to serve.

The left-leaning government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has differed sharply with its opposition over the issue of confronting Basque separatists, especially after a Dec. 30 attack at Madrid's international airport that shattered the cease-fire that had been in force for nine months. Zapatero still hopes to salvage a peace process, whereas opposition groups advocate tough policing.

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