Ex-boss of Basque separatist militant group ETA apologises for deaths

Josu Urrutikoetxea, a former leader of Basque separatist militant group ETA, speaks in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.
Josu Urrutikoetxea, a former leader of Basque separatist militant group ETA, speaks in Paris, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Copyright Michel Euler/AP Photo
Copyright Michel Euler/AP Photo
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Josu Urrutikoetxea led ETA during one of its bloodiest periods when its victims included children bombed to death while sleeping in a Zaragoza police compound


A Paris appeals court on Monday postponed the first of two back-to-back terrorism trials this week against the last-known chief of ETA, the now-extinct Basque separatist militant group.

They are charges defendant Josu Urrutikoetxea deems “absurd” because of his role in ending a conflict that claimed some 850 lives and terrorised Spain for half a century.

Urrutikoetxea led ETA during one of its bloodiest periods when its victims included children bombed to death while sleeping in a Zaragoza police compound. In a rare interview after 17 years on the run, he offered an apology, advised other separatist movements against resorting to violence and painted himself as a changed man.

That’s a preposterous claim to those who lost loved ones to ETA’s violence. Just because he oversaw ETA’s end in 2018, they stress, that doesn’t erase his past.

Now 69, diminished by a battle with cancer and facing the prospect of life behind bars, the man widely known by his police alias Josu Ternera says he’s sorry for “irreparable damage” caused by ETA violence as it sought to build an independent state straddling the Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France.

Asked if he would apologise to ETA victims’ families, he told The Associated Press: “Of course, (I offer) apologies for something that we can’t repair.”

But he insisted the Basque independence movement suffered, too, from a “black hole” of cultural repression rooted in the Spanish dictatorship that ended more than four decades ago, and mainly from rogue groups within the Spanish government that in the 1980s tortured and killed nearly 30 ETA members and other militants.

Apologies aren't enough for some ETA victims.

“I don’t seek revenge against Josu Ternera,” said Lucía Ruiz, who was 10 when she was injured in the 1987 blast targeting military police barracks in Zaragoza where she lived. “But this gentleman tried to kill me and I want for him to pay a price for it.”

Since his long-awaited arrest last year, Urrutikoetxea has campaigned to shed the terrorist label and rebrand himself as a repentant, ageing peacemaker.

He won conditional release in July pending trial, after lawyers argued poor health made him vulnerable to contracting the new coronavirus. He’s now staying with a friend in Paris, where he's trying to get his first-ever college diploma and is allowed out a few hours a day with an electronic bracelet.

In a petition published Saturday, more than 250 intellectuals from multiple countries called for France and Spain to end Urrutikoetxea’s prosecution, arguing that putting him on trial “is implicitly criminalising all negotiators and calling into question all current and future peace processes in the world.”

Those calls are rejected by most of Spain’s political mainstream.

Ruiz and Spanish authorities believe that Urrutikoetxea, as ETA’s leader, either approved or knew about the car that, loaded with dynamite, exploded under her window at the Zaragoza Civil Guard headquarters where she lived with her father, mother and sister.

Three ETA assailants were tried and imprisoned for carrying out the attack, which killed 11 people, including six minors.

“He now presents himself as the country’s saviour,” Ruiz said. "But this gentleman is a murderer, with murder written in capital letters.”

Urrutikoetxea denies any role, saying, “They want me to answer for something I had nothing to do with.”

His life mirrors the trajectory of ETA, whose initials stand for “Basque Homeland and Freedom” and was created during Gen. Francisco Franco’s 1939-1975 dictatorship. He joined in 1968, the year of ETA’s first deadly attack, and led the group in the late 1980s. He served 11 years in French and Spanish prisons, was a lawmaker in the Basque regional parliament and then a negotiator in talks with Spanish government envoys.


Urrutikoetxea claims he was under quiet French police protection for years, which allowed him to travel to peace talks despite being on Interpol’s most-wanted list. The French government would not comment on his claims.

ETA gave up its arms in 2017, and Urrutikoetxea announced ETA’s final dismantling the following year.

“We had to ... open the path to peace, whatever it cost," he said, “for the generations to come.”

He was set to face justice this week for the first time in decades, following two sentences for a total of 15 years in prison for his alleged role in attack plots in the 2000s and 2010s respectively that he appealed when he was arrested.

But the judge on the earlier case postponed the trial to Feb. 22 and 23 next year because some of the key defence witnesses couldn't make it to Monday's hearing due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Arguing that he was focused on peace efforts at the time of the alleged plots, he said, "It’s absurd that they want to judge me” for this.

His lawyer plans to request a delay in Monday’s trial for procedural reasons. Once the French trials end, France has agreed to extradite Urrutikoetxea to Spain, which wants to try him for crimes against humanity, multiple killings and belonging to a terrorist organisation, although his defence has appealed.

Ruiz rejects Urrutikoetxea’s peddling of himself as “a man of peace.”

“I doubt I would pardon him. What I do want is to see him taking the stand in court,” she said, standing at the site of ETA’s attack on the Civil Guard.

Urrutikoetxea prefers talking of the future.


Basque society remains similarly divided, said Gaizka Fernández Soldevilla, a historian and researcher with the Foundation and Memorial for Terrorism Victims in the Basque region’s capital, Vitoria. “There is a part that wants to turn the page without having read it, and there is another side that wants to get a lesson for democracy out of it ... to try to heal the wounds and become a more coherent, cohesive society.”

That won’t happen, Fernández said, “if all that’s done is to try to forget”.

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