MADRID, Jan 8 – The head of the Basque government and his chief opponent go on trial Thursday over past contacts with the political wing of the armed separatist group ETA, as the two prepare to face off in regional elections in March.,
Juan Jose Ibarretxe, head of the governing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and Patxi Lopez, regional leader of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party, face possible prison terms and bans on political activity if found guilty.
But neither is expected to be convicted as prosecutors have recommended that the charges be dropped.
In ordering the trial in October 2007, Judge Roberto Saiz of the Basque superior court said he saw no reason to follow the prosecutors’ recommendations, and that there were, "on the contrary, indications of a crime."
Ibarretxe and Lopez, along with another senior member of the Basque branch of the Socialist Party, Rodolfo Ares, are accused of having met several times with leaders of Batasuna, ETA’s banned political wing, as the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was conducting tentative negotiations with the separatist group in 2006.
Batasuna has been outlawed since 2003 for refusing to condemn violence and cut its links to ETA, which has killed 825 people in a 40-year-old campaign for an independent Basque homeland.
Four senior members of Batasuna, including veteran Arnalso Otegi, will also go on trial for disobeying the court order to disband.
All three politicians have admitted contacts with Batasuna, but as part of moves to push forward the peace process.
At a preliminary hearing last year, Ibarretxe said he had promised Basque citizens he would "talk to everyone" to find a solution to the Basque problem.
Lopez, who is hoping to oust Ibarretxe as Basque prime minister in regional elections scheduled for March 1, said he was "absolutely convinced" that the trial would not lead to any convictions.
"No court will say that politics should not be used to move on the road to peace," he told reporters.
Opinion polls indicate Ibarretxe’s PNV, which has governed the region since 1980, is at risk of defeat.
In his two previous terms, Ibarretxe has tried to organise regional referendums on self-determination for the Basques, but the plans were rejected by Madrid.
Among witnesses expected to make statements at the trial are Zapatero, who could be asked to respond to questions from the court in writing, and his two predecessors, Jose Maria Aznar and Felipe Gonzalez.
Zapatero tried unsuccessfully to resolve the Basque problem in 2006. But he has taken a hard line against the separatists since ETA called off a 15-month-old ceasefire in June, 2007, and has repeatedly ruled out any new negotiations.
Otegi called the trial, which is the result of complaints filed by two associations opposed to talks with ETA, the Forum Ermua and Dignity and Justice, a "farce".
"This will be the only case in Europe where the participants in talks will be in the dock for having tried to find solutions," he said.
The trial is expected to last three weeks.
Forum Ermua is calling for prison terms of up to four years, as well as a ban on political activity, for the accused.