(Karlos Zurutuza for All Jazeera)
Basque journalists continue to serve prison sentences for alleged ties to the armed group ETA.
Jabier Salutregi, the only newspaper director imprisoned today in the European Union, described the current political scene in Spain as a “benevolent dictatorship”.
Salutregi is serving a seven-year sentence with five former media colleagues after being convicted of “belonging to an armed group”.
“We are facing a series of laws that screw any political claim or achievement, as well as any hope in the judicial system,” Salutregi told Al Jazeera from Burgos prison, 240km north of Madrid.
Salutregi’s odyssey began in 1998 with the closure of Egin, the Basque newspaper he was running.
A week after the closure, a statement by then-president José María Aznar of the conservative Partido Popular suggested the Spanish government might have been behind the shutdown.
“Did anyone think that we would not dare to close Egin?” Aznar had said at a press conference in Turkey.
Egin’s closure preceded an operation meant to dismantle organisations and companies allegedly linked to the Basque armed organisation ETA.
“That was just the beginning of what would come next – and what is yet to come,” said Salutregi.
The number of Basque members of the media to be prosecuted climbed to 30 after the closings of Ardi Beltza magazine in 2001 and Egunkaria in 2003, the only newspaper published entirely in Basque at that time.
Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’s (ETA) violent campaign for a separate state in northern Spain and southwestern France came in response to a crackdown on Basque language and culture by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. More than 820 people have been killed in ETA attacks over the past 40 years, mostly Spanish security forces.
Unlike Salutregi, the director of Egunkaria, Martxelo Otamendi, avoided a prison sentence, but he alleged he was tortured during his detention.
“I spent five days incommunicado. During the first three days I was forced to stand up and deprived of sleep. They would let me sit for 20 minutes every five hours.
“I was also tortured with a plastic bag and I even suffered a mock execution,” Otamendi told Al Jazeera from the editorial office of Berria, the newspaper he leads today.
Interior ministry officials contacted by Al Jazeera “categorically” denied that Otamendi was tortured.
In 2009, Spanish courts ruled that Egin’s reporting was not unlawful, but the decade-long gap since its closure made it impossible to relaunch the newspaper and its sister radio station.
The Egunkaria case was not fully closed until last year. Otamendi said neither he nor his newspaper have received any compensation for either the moral or material damage.
An indemnification of sorts came in October 2012, when the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Spanish government to pay Otamendi 24,000 euros ($25,400) in damages and expenses for failing to investigate his torture allegations.
In a 2014 report, Amnesty International called on the Spanish government to recognise that torture is “still a persistent problem” in the country.
Last month, the United Nations Committee against Torture raised solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, and torture allegations with Spanish officials.
The interior ministry officials said Spanish security forces are “among the best in Europe”, adding they conduct their work “under the most rigorous respect for the fundamental rights and the dignity and integrity of the individuals in their custody”.
Teresa Toda, deputy director of Egin, was released in 2013 after spending six years in prison. The 65-year-old insisted she was the victim of a “purely political” process.
“It was insane. You could even be a member of ETA unknowingly – the judge knows it, but you don’t,” Toda told Al Jazeera.
“In the thousands of sheets of this legal summary, there were no weapons, no explosives, no one had hosted anyone involved in terrorist activities,” added Toda, saying she had “fully disconnected” from journalism.
“Egin, Ardi Beltza, and Egunkaria were grave violations against the freedom of speech in a state that should guarantee it as a member of the European Union,” Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, president of Basque PEN, told Al Jazeera.
Basque PEN is the local chapter of International PEN, which holds a special consultative status at the UN.
Urrutikoetxea pointed to a “logic of war” to understand the media closures and arrests.
“Basic rights were curtailed under the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’ in order to criminalise the Basque independence movement as a whole,” Urrutikoetxea said from his residence in Bilbao.
Reporters Without Borders is among the several organisations that have denounced the banning of the Basque newspapers. María Dolores Masana, a member of the group’s board in Spain, called the situation “pure censorship”.
“The closure of these media outlets is a black spot on the recent history of freedom of speech in our country. We’d better not forget it because once it’s established, censorship knows no bounds,” Masana told Al Jazeera.
She noted Salutregi is the only newspaper director imprisoned in the EU, adding she feared Spain may witness similar episodes after the recent passage of the Citizen Security Law.
‘Gag law’ defence
On March 26, Spain’s parliament passed the Citizen Security Law, which can impose fines of up to 600,000 euros ($636,000) for certain actions such as holding demonstrations, preventing home evictions, or recording the police.
Masana said Reporters Without Borders has expressed “deepest concern”, and called on the Spanish government to reconsider the modus operandi of the police, “often responsible for attacks against protesters and journalists over the last years.”
Borja Semper, Partido Popular parliamentarian in the Basque chamber, told Al Jazeera the right to demonstrate was “sacred”.
The controversial law “only seeks to find the right balance between the work of the police and that of the journalists”, he said, while ensuring the media “doesn’t obstruct” the work of the security forces.
Semper defended the closure of Basque newspapers, saying ETA was “a very complex structure”, and “many of the headlines mirrored the ideology of the armed gang”.
“It may sound strange to hear about journalists in prison in Spain, but I’m truly convinced it’s something in full accordance with the law,” said the conservative MP.
Regarding torture allegations, Semper said some state officials had “gone beyond the limits”, but he insisted the government had “adopted effective policies to correct these irregularities”.
Jabier Salutregi will be freed from Burgos prison in October, but his release may coincide with the incarceration of Iraitz Salegi, a journalist prosecuted after covering a conference of Basque pro-independence groups in April 2013.
Salegi faces 18 months in prison on charges of “apology for terrorism” in a trial starting later this month.
Salegi, 24, told Al Jazeera she has actively campaigned against the Citizen Security Law. But, she said, it “comes as no surprise given the long list of imprisoned Basque journalists”.