Martxelo Otamendi was invited to speak at International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee conference, held in Barcelona in May 2004 as part of the Universal Forum of Cultures. His testimony was part of a session which centered around the recent publication of International PEN’s report, ‘Anti-Terrorism, Writers and Freedom of Expression’ – which was presented for the first time at PEN’s Congress in Mexico in November 2003*.
At the time of his arrest in February 2003, Otamendi was a reporter on the Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria, the only daily newspaepr published entirely in the Basque langauge. The Spanish authorities claim that Egunkaria was financed by the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and subseqauently closed the newspaper down. Egunkaria’s anti-ETA stance was justified as a deliberate attempt to disguise what it alleged were its true links to a terrorist organisation.
Otamendi explained that the authorities’ accusation had stemmed from an article published in Egunkaria, which contained interviews with several members of ETA, and which were understood to be seen as expressing suport for ETA. Otamendi said that he considered this association ludicrous, and compared the situation with Time magazine’s previously-published interview with Osama bin Laden, in which Osama bin Laden had threatened the USA with terrorist attacks. It would be ridiculous, Otamendi claimed, to imagine that the editor of Time would be charged with spreading the ideas of Osama bin Laden, so why did his newspaper’s interviews with ETA members constitute support for ETA itself?
Otamendi spoke very movingly of his arrest and subsequent experience in prison. Under Spanish anti-terrorist legislation, prisoners may be held in custody for up to 5 days without having to be told why, and Otamendi was held under these terms in February 2003. He compared his experience with that of the Iraqi prisoners of war, photographs of whom have recently been shown in the media across the world. Otamendi explained that his face had been covered and that he had been prevented from speaking or sleeping. He was threatened with sexual abuse and forced to masturbate, and on one occasion a pistol was held against his head. Following a visit from a forensic specialist to check his condition after a period of torture, he was told by the Civil Guard (the authority running the prison) that if he told the truth about the torture he had endured to the specialist, he would be killed. He spoke of the mental torture he underwent too, when the Civil Guard had told him that members of ETA who were being detained had already confessed, and that he would have no choice but to confess as they had – as they put it, to ‘sing like a bird’.
Otamendi explained that Basque detainees are often taken directly to Madrid when they are arrested. The purpose of this is two-fold: firstly, it prevents them being tried by sympathetic Basque judges; and secondly ensures that detainees’ complaints are lodged in Madrid – which they are unlikely to win. The Spanish judge allocated to Otamendi’s case did not believe that he was tortured, and closed his case without calling him to testify. Otamendi said that he would continue to protest his case, and would continue to fight until he was afforded a public trial.
The Chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Joan Smith, who introduced Otamendi and who wrote the introduction to the ‘Anti-Terrorism, Writers and Freedom of Expression’ report, explained that the forcible closure of Egunkaria was indicative of one of a number of trends seen regarding anti-terrorism legislation since the terrorist attacks in the US on 11th September 2001. Spain was one of a number of countries which would previously have been considered to have a functioning democracy, but since 9/11, it has introduced much stricter legislation – something which would not have been expected from this country before.
Martxelo Otamendi was released in March 2003. The Director of Egunkaria, Iñaki Uria Manterola, has recently been released from prison. Both men are awaiting trial.
*To read the report, which was written by Siobhan Dowd, please click here. You will need to click into the Writers in Prison Committee pages – the report is filed under ‘publications’.
To read about the press conference which Martxelo Otamendi gave in Barcelona with Salman Rushdie, please click here
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersintranslation/magazineofliteratureintranslat/basquecountry/martxelootamendi/