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Spain3 April 2008

Justice minister urged to conclude judicial proceedings that have kept Basque daily closed since 2003

Reporters Without Borders calls on the justice minister to conclude the judicial proceedings against the Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria that have resulted in its remaining closed for the past five years because of its alleged illegal links with the Basque armed separatist group ETA.

The newspaper was shut down at the Spanish high court‚s behest on 20 February 2003, the same day that civil guards arrested 13 journalists and members of its board on suspicion of "the crime of belonging to or collaborating with the terrorist organisation ETA".

On the grounds that the group that owns the newspaper Egunkaria S.A. and Egunkaria Sortzen S.L. pursued the same goals as ETA and helped it by creating front companies, judge Juan del Olmo ordered preventive measures consisting of freezing its assets, suspending its activities and closing its premises. And he has renewed the measures every six months since 21 July 2003.

"The alleged links between certain members of Egunkaria’s staff and ETA have never been demonstrated, despite five years of judicial investigation", Reporters Without Borders said. "The Spanish government’s fight against terrorism is legitimate but it must be done without violating free expression. We point out that Basque journalists are themselves been the victims of an ETA campaign of terror against the media and some of them have been forced to work with bodyguards or to leave the Basque country".

The press freedom organisation added: "We reiterate our concern about Egunkaria’s closure, as it deprives readers of their right to news and information, and we urge justice minister Mariano Fernandez Beremejo to allow the newspaper to reopen and to get the judicial authorities to conduct a trial very soon so that they can finally reach a decision on the substance of the charges".

There are two aspects to Judge Del Olmo‚s investigation. The main one is Egunkaria‚s alleged links to ETA. The other one is alleged tax fraud.

The 13 people charged in the case are Egunkaria S.A. chairman Joan Mari Torrealdai, Egunkaria S.A. chief executive Iñaki Uria, board of governors secretary Txema Auzmendi, Egunkaria managing editor Martxelo Otamendi, former Egunkaria managing editor Pello Zubiria, former Egunkaria editor Xabier Oleaga, Batasuna party activist Xabier Alegria, Egunkaria S.A. board member Joxe Mari Sors, and four office employees ˆ Ainhoa Albisu, Mikel Sorozabal, Begoña Zubelzu and Fernando Furundarena.

Each of them faces combined sentences of 30 to 40 years in prison and fine of more than 30 million euros.

They are charged with creating an "illegal association" and some of them are also charged with "belonging to a terrorist organisation". They all deny all of the charges and appealed on 29 December 2004 to the second chamber of the Spanish high court. It has not yet issued a ruling on their appeal.

In a report at the end of last year, a committee of international jurists said the disproportionate nature of the newspaper‚s closure and the arrests of the 13 journalists and employees constituted a violation of articles 10 and 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The committee also said article 129.9 permitting the closure of companies, the one used to close Egunkaria, was not applicable to media companies.

Prosecutor Miguel Angel Carballo said in December 2006 that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against the 13 suspects.

Stressing their commitment to free expression, 70 Spanish parliamentarians urged Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government to drop the case against Egunkaria on 20 October 2005.

Following Egunkaria’s closure in February 2003, funds raised by means of an appeal led to the creation of another Basque-language daily called Berria in June 2003. It is edited by Martxelo Otamendi and has a circulation of 20,000.

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