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Martxelo Otamendi, a Basque with Idaho ties, faces terror trial

This story by Katy Moeller of the Idaho Statesman is posted here in case it is re/moved; it originally appeared online Dec. 15, 2009 at

Idaho Basques including Boise's mayor--who hosted the journalist on one visit--fear an attack on their culture.


A terrorism trial on another continent is hitting close to home for some Boiseans.

A journalist familiar to many in the Valley's large Basque-American community is one of five former employees of a Basque-language daily newspaper scheduled to go on trial Tuesday in Spain.

Martxelo Otamendi and the others from the paper Euskaldunon Egunkaria will be tried in Spanish National Criminal Court, which is where cases of alleged terrorism are handled.

Some Boise-area Basques say they believe Otamendi's only crime is being a vocal Basque nationalist - not a member of the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna - which means "Basque Homeland and Freedom" and is known as ETA.

Many thought the question had been resolved - in Otamendi's favor.

The trial comes more than six years after Otamendi and the others were charged and after a major shift to the left in Spanish government.

"I have real concerns that it came out of a time that was known to be repressive," Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said. "Why are they prosecuting years away from any of the accusations? ... If the case were strong, he'd have been prosecuted a lot sooner than this."

The public prosecutor in Spain opted not to pursue the case. But in the Spanish legal system there is also a private prosecutor who takes part in criminal procedures as a victim. The private prosecutor is taking the case to trial.


Egunkaria ("The daily") was for thirteen years the only fully Basque language newspaper in circulation. On 20 February, 2003, the Spanish Civil Guard on orders from the Audiencia Nacional raided the newspaper's offices, seized documents and computers, and froze the newspaper's assets. In addition, ten individuals who were or had been members of staff were arrested in dawn raids and held on charges of forming an "illegal association" at the time of Egunkaria's establishment, and for "membership of, or collaboration with, ETA". All were later cleared of all charges, and released. The newspaper was also effectively forced into liquidation as its assets were sold off by court-appointed administrators, meaning that regardless of the outcome of the case, Egunkaria had ceased to exist.


Otamendi has developed friendships in Boise over the past two decades, during which he has visited three times.

His first visit came in 1989, when he came to work on a two-month project with a local TV station.

He returned to Boise in 2005 for Jaialdi, a national Basque festival that's held every five years and attracts Basques from all over the world.

In 2002, Otamendi stayed at Bieter's house while he was in Boise covering the Idaho Legislature's memorial supporting self-determination for the Basques of northern Spain and southern France.

"He stayed in a room over our garage - not exactly luxury accommodations. I can't really recall how it came about," said Bieter, who at that time was a state representative in the Legislature.

Bieter said he and others were surprised that a non-binding joint memorial by the Idaho Legislature would become an international news event.

"Somehow (Otamendi) saw that as news before anybody else really did," Bieter said. "Then it really did become news. AP picked it up. The Spanish ambassador threw a fit."

It even attracted the attention of President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Otamendi spent a week to 10 days interviewing members of the Idaho Legislature, including Bieter and Pete Cenarrusa, a Basque-American and former longtime Idaho secretary of state.

About 15,000 Basques live in Idaho, making it one of the largest Basque populations in the world outside the Basque Country.

Bieter's father was a professor at Boise State University. His family lived in the Basque Country for a time while dictator Francisco Franco was still in power. During a visit during early 2001 or 2002, Bieter was surprised by what he saw.

"It had become repressive again. I saw a lot of instances of that," Bieter said. "The Guardia Civil, an arm of the government, the submachine gun and jackboot guys were all around again. They came downreal hard on demonstrations in the cities in the Basque Country. ... They were rounding up big groups of people."

Boise, Idaho mayor Dave H. Bieter (11/1/1959) is of Basque descent; his mother was Eloise Garmendia Bieter whose ancestry goes back to Lekeitio, Bizkaia.    He is presently serving his second term as mayor.

It was said that for a time he was the only mayor of a large city in the world that spoke Basque; including the mayors of the seven historical territorial capitals in the Basque country.

In 2002, Otamendi stayed at Bieter's house while he was in Boise covering the Idaho Legislature's memorial supporting self-determination for the Basques of northern Spain and southern France.



On Feb. 20, 2003, Judge Juan del Olmo of the National Court of Spain shut down Egunkaria, the only daily newspaper published in the Basque language and dedicated to the lives, politics and culture of the Euskaldunak, or Basque people.

To Basques, journalists and human rights advocates around the world, the shutdown of the newspaper appeared heavy-handed.

"There is a freedom of the press issue that's really concerning," Bieter said.

Another Basque newspaper, Egin, was closed in 1998 under similar circumstances, with journalists accused of colluding with ETA. At least one journalist there was convicted, but earlier this year, more than 10 years after the "precautionary closure" of Egin, the case against the paper was dismissed.

"They could re-open it now, but the damage they have caused to the freedom of press cannot be healed at all," said Alberto Santana Ezkerra, director of Basque studies at Boise State University.

Paddy Woodworth, a former reporter for the Irish Times newspaper and author of "The Basque Country: A Cultural History," agrees.

"I believe that if there are serious charges against a medium of communication, sufficient to justify the precautionary measure of closing it down, they should be heard within weeks, not years," he said. "Otherwise the state is very open to charges of suppressing press freedom."

Last year, after Egunkaria had been closed five years, the group Reporters Without Borders called on Spain to drop the years-long prosecution.

"The alleged links between certain members of Egunkaria's staff and ETA have never been demonstrated, despite five years of judicial investigation," the press freedom group said. "The Spanish government's fight against terrorism is legitimate, but it must be done without violating free expression."

Spain's approach to that fight is an important part of the story, Woodworth and other experts said.

"The background is important," Woodworth said. "An anti-terrorist strategy from Madrid ... says that everything and everybody who shares any of ETA's aspirations is in reality a member of ETA - a very dangerous and undemocratic doctrine."

The policy begun under the conservative Partido Popular has been continued under the socialist worker's party, Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol, he said.

Journalists at Egunkaria were suspected by Spanish authorities of receiving both financing and direction from the armed Basque separatist group.

Otamendi vehemently denies the charge. After his arrest in 2003, he told the Idaho Statesman that he was tortured by the Spanish Guardia Civil during a five-day interrogation. He was released on $30,000 bond.

Basques angry about the loss of their paper pooled their money and opened the newspaper Egunero immediately after Egunkaria was closed. Four months later, the larger daily newspaper, Berria, was launched - with Otamendi serving as its editor.

Learn Basque


Santana Ezkerra, the BSU professor, is among those in the Boise area who are keenly interested in the fate of Otamendi and his former co-workers at Egunkaria.

Santana is originally from the Basque Country. He said the terrorist group ETA turns 50 this year.

"They are weaker than ever, both in terms of popular support and in military terms," Santana said.

He said there are many reasons for the weakening of support for ETA among Basques, including a new generation that doesn't remember Franco and a population that is wealthier and less interested in conflicts with the Spanish government than in the past.

"ETA is dying," said Xabier Irujo Ametzaga, a professor of Basque politics at the University of Nevada, Reno. "The biggest part of Basque society is against the use of violence."

Santana has met Otamendi at cultural events, but doesn't know him personally. Still, he feels strongly that Otamendi is not a terrorist.

"I'm sure that he's not a member of ETA," Santana said. "He's a journalist. If he wanted to be a member of ETA, he could easily get a machine gun. His weapons are paper and printer."

"His editorials were not supporting ETA," said Santana, who was a regular reader of Egunkaria.

Santana and others say the shuttering of the only daily Basque-language newspaper was a huge blow. More than 3,000 people pitched in money to open Berria. It's available online.

"The Basque language is the main pillar of the Basque culture. It is a very important issue for everyone in the Basque Country," Irujo said.





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