The 23 people had gathered to reorganize their political party in Segura, a quaint medieval town in the highlands of Spain's Basque country. And then the police swept in, virtually besieging the town for several hours. In the end, the government arrested all 23 as members of the directorate of Batasuna, the political arm of ETA, the armed group that seeks to separate the Basque provinces from the Kingdom of Spain. The action against Batasuna was ordered by Judge Baltasar Garzon who is investigating the links between ETA and Batasuna. It was those same allegedly links that got Batasuna banned as a political party in 2002.
The police operation ostensibly came in response to ETA's decision to break a self-imposed cease-fire last June 6. But it can also be seen as part of the reaction of the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to criticism that is soft on Basque and Catalonian nationalism. That criticism has stung the otherwise popular Zapatero in the walk-up to parliamentary elections in March 2008. Patxi Zabaleta, a former Batasuna member and now leader of Aralar, a Basque nationalist party, castigated the government over the arrests. "These people were meeting to talk, without arms," he said. "The right to gather must be respected, in [Burma] and in Spain".
Since June, Spanish authorities (in concerted action with French counterparts across the border) have scaled up their antiterrorist operations and moved aggressively against ETA and Batasuna. Earlier this week, Spanish authorities arrested two other Batasuna leaders. Arnaldo Otegi, the group's main spokesperson was jailed on June 8 to serve a 15-month sentence for participating in a tribute to an ETA activist killed in 1978 by a fascist paramilitary group.
The Socialist Government denies it is directing the reinvigorated police activity, insisting that it is a law-enforcement action, not a politically motivated one. ""The Judicial branch acts independently and the Government does not tell the judges what to do", Jose Antonio Pastor, the Basque Socialist Party speaker at the Basque Parliament, told TIME. "[This operation] is not an instrumental action by the Government".
Criticism by the opposition Partido Popular (PP) that Zapatero is soft on the nationalists and separatists in the Basque and Catalan provinces appear to have pushed the Prime Minister toward a tougher stance on nationalist demands. He has certainly come down hard on ETA and has closed off negotiations with Batasuna for a political solution to the decades-old Basque conflict. Zapatero acknowledged recently that there should be "no expectation" of new negotiations with ETA in 2008.
Yet, some critics believe Zapatero's calculations may backfire. Paul Rios, general coordinator of Lokarri, a social movement for peace in the Basque Country, sasy: "[Zapatero's] strategy is wrong either way. The PP is still going to come after him, whatever he does. At the same time, by taking out [Batasuna's leadership] he is leaving the door open to the hard-liners, just as the group was undergoing a profound debate on the consequences of the broken cease-fire."
Indeed, Thursday's arrests may bring a radicalization of Basque politics as Batasuna supporters reacted angrily. Pernando Barrena, one of the few Batasuna directors not present at the meeting where the arrests were made, has made it clear that Batasuna will continue its activities. "We want to tell the Socialist Party and the Spanish Government that [Batasuna] will stay where it has always been and will maintain its political wager in favor of peace and the resolution of the [Basque] conflict." And while Barrena and others favor public protests, Basques are praying that ETA does not respond with something far deadlier.