Ceasefire brings hope to staff at risk of Eta attack

June 23, 2006

Academics who have lived under threat from Basque separatist group Eta have grown cautiously optimistic since the announcement of a ceasefire in March, writes Rebecca Warden in Barcelona.

They hope the start of a Basque peace process could signal the end of political violence in Spain and an improvement in their personal circumstances.

Since the mid-1990s, some academics at the University of the Basque Country (EHU) have had to get used to company.

Manuel Montero, a former rector, has had one police bodyguard since 1999, a number that was doubled later. "Two people who accompany me every day everywhere I go," he said. "It is difficult to explain what this is like."

Jose Ignacio Martinez Churiaque, professor of finance and accounting, was given special protection in 2000. He said he had spent more time with his police escorts than with his wife. "It is a strange way to live," he said.

"I try and do my job in the same way as my colleagues, but obviously it affects you."

Although calmer in recent years, the political tensions of the Basque Country have regularly surfaced on campus in the past. Academics who have taken a public stand against terrorism have been singled out for special attention.

According to Professor Churiaque, past incidents at the faculty of economics have included threatening graffiti, posters featuring his photo and personal details, and an attack with paint and firebombs that destroyed the dean's office.

"I have been lucky as nationalism has never been the majority opinion here in economics, but for some colleagues in other faculties, such as journalism, going to work every day has been hell," he says.

One of the worst incidents occurred when a bomb was placed in the lift of the faculty of political science and communication in 2000. The bomb was detonated but failed to go off. It was aimed at Edurne Uriarte, a lecturer in political science at the EHU and a prominent critic of Eta, who has since moved to Madrid.

Jose Manuel Mata, dean of political science and communication, said the climate of fear had had negative effects on academics' freedom of expression. "Obviously there must be plenty of people who have decided to keep quiet or at least adopt an ambivalent attitude and not come out clearly against terrorism," he said. "But in my book this is not a question of courage, it is more an issue of personal responsibility."

Life on campus has been calmer since 2003. Academics with police protection hope the ceasefire will contribute to a return to normality. Some see the ceasefire as one more step in Eta's decline, triggered by factors that include police pressure, changes in the law and public revulsion for violence after the Islamist train bombs in Madrid in 2004.

Another key development has been the loss of support in the Basque Country.

"Before, students could channel their feelings of rebellion by joining the groups around Eta," Professor Churiaque said.

"But now these have lost a lot of their social prestige, and this is a big step."

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