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Spain17 November 2005

Justice minister urged to speed up proceedings that have kept Basque newspaper closed

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Reporters Without Borders today called on Spanish justice minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar to speed up the judicial proceedings that have kept the Basque-language daily newspaper Egunkaria closed since 20 February 2003, so that it can resume publishing as soon as possible.

The press freedom organisation issued its call on the eve of hearings in which the national court in Madrid will consider the appeals of seven Egunkaria journalists against their indictment on charges of being linked with the Basque armed separatist group ETA.

“After two and a half years of judicial investigation, no trial has yet been held to establish whether or not any members of this newspaper’s staff really are linked to ETA,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Spanish authorities’ efforts to combat terrorism are legitimate but they not be should used as a pretext for accusing journalists who defend the Basque language and culture of belonging to a terrorist organisation.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “We point out that Basque journalists are the most frequent victims of ETA’s campaign of terror against the media, which forces them to work with bodyguards or to leave the Basque country altogether.”

The national court will tomorrow begin hearing appeals by Martxelo Otamendi, Inaki Uria, Joan Mari Torrealdai, Txema Auzmendi, Xabier Alegria, Pello Zubiria and Xabier Oleaga, who were charged on 3 December 2004 by lower court judge Juan Del Olmo with creating an “illegal association” and, for some of them, with “membership of a terrorist group” as well. The journalists, who are all free on bail, face prison terms ranging from one to 14 years.

The proceedings against Egunkaria have been controversial as well as protracted. Arrested on 20 February 2003, four of the seven journalists claimed they were mistreated while held in custody for five days without being able to talk to lawyers.

On 21 July 2003, judge Del Olmo ordered a six-month extension of the “preventive measures” adopted against the Egunkaria group on the grounds that it helped reinforce ETA’s terrorist structures by creating dummy companies. Since then the “measures” have been renewed every six months, preventing the newspaper from going back to work.

All of the journalists denied all of the charges and lodged an appeal on 29 December 2004 with the national court, which has so far not issued a ruling.

On 15 March of this year, Del Olmo gave orders for the Egunkaria group’s accounts to be frozen and for the company to be liquidated. An Egunkaria support group was created three days later, comprising Basque intellectuals, performing artists and politicians.

“Despite examining thousands of documents, questioning more than 20 people, searching their homes and workplaces and ordering telephone taps, the judge has found no evidence of a link between Egunkaria and ETA,” one of the newspaper’s lawyers told Reporters Without Borders. “The charges are based solely on the judge’s assumption, which comes down to ‘suspicion plus suspicion equals proof’,” the lawyer added.

Egunkaria was created in 1990. “It is an independent and pluralist daily that has never been an ideological newspaper,” Reporters Without Borders was told by Martxelo Otamendi, its former editor, who faces 8-14 years in prison on a charge of belonging to a terrorist organisation.

Otamendi now edits another Basque-language daily that was created with the help of contributions from many Basque Country residents in June 2003, four months after Egunkaria’s forced closure. Called Berria, it has a circulation of 20,000.

More than 60 members of the Spanish parliament called on the government on 20 October to drop the entire case against Egunkaria.

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