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The conference counted with the presence of:
• Robert McBride, former South African prisoner and head of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police.
• Avila Kilmurray, Director of The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
• Gabi Mouesca, Former Basque prisoner and former President of the OIP.
• Nelly Maes, President of the Flemish Vredesinstituut, former MEP (EFA).
MEPs Catherine Grèze and François Alfonsi chaired the meeting welcomed the participants and made a short introduction of the political situation in the Basque Country.
Robert McBride spoke about the South African peace process focusing on how they resolved the issue of political prisoners. He stressed four main lessons:
When Mandela was imprisoned (1) the government stated that there was no political prisoners, he was only a criminal and a terrorist.
However in 1986 (2) contacts between Mandela and the government began while he was still in prison and during the negotiations, (3) the government released some prisoners for humanitarian reasons and this was an indication of the government’s willingness.
He reaffirmed that all the South African political prisoners were released during the process and he reminded that this people had been leaders and committed members of their communities and had played crucial roles during and after the process. He stressed that (4) the issue of political prisoners must be resolve as soon as possible, if not time will go on and the issue will still have to resolved.
Avila Kilmurray talked about how their foundation has worked since 1994 and how they work nowadays to reintegrate political prisoners into society:
She spoke about the role of prisoners before the agreements to promote dialogue spaces, given their credibility within their own communities and organisations.
She underlined the importance of former prisoners’ organisations to make sure their voices were heard. She also explained, how after the Good Friday agreement and the release of prisoners, these organisations set up centres to attend prisoners and give them advice on re-employment, training courses, social security.
She pointed that there had also been some errors, as the lack of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” or similar mechanism. And according to her this led to a situation were former prisoners still hold Criminal convictions, with the consequent discrimination. She underlined that this allowed and still allows a symbolic use of the prisoners issue.
Kilmurray emphasized that we can not forget the families of prisoners because, they have also suffered and prisoners must be reinserted in their families with all the changes that have taken place and this is difficult for both of them. She ended saying that is very important to respect all human rights.
Gabi Mouesca, explained the current situation of Basque political prisoners and their incarceration conditions:
He started naming one by one the 15 Basque prisoners who suffer serious illnesses and are still held in prison, despite the legal obligation to release them and the difficulties their imprisonment entail for their health care. He then talked about the 197/2006 Doctrine, a Spanish juridical decision that artificially lengthens the sentences of 73 Basque prisoners. He asked the Great Court of the European Court of Human Rights to confirm the sentence given in July 2012, condemning the Kingdom of Spain and ordering the release of prisoners.
He said that there are nowadays 603 prisoners, and explained than more than forty prisoners have spent over 25 years in prison. He described the dispersion policy, the extraordinary measure of keeping prisoners as far as possible from their places of origin and as isolated as possible between themselves.
To end the panel presentations Nelly Maes spoke as one of the endorsers of the “On the path to Peace” international Initiative:
She explained that prisoners are not victims, according to her opinion they are political active force elements and social forces and should be political actors in a peace process.
She called the European Union and different national and regional parliaments to participate in the peace process that is taking place in the Basque Country. And she appealed international agents to organize visits to various prisons and different Basque political prisoners in order to put pressure on French and Spanish states.
Several Basque Parties took the floor to express their opinions on the issue, including Sortu, Europe
Ecologie, Abertzaleen Batasuna, Eusko Alkartasuna and Aralar. Sinn Féin member MLA Rosie McCorley, and former republican prisoner, took the floor to recall the Irish experience and the importance of the EU’s support. Finally, MEPs Ana Miranda and Mark Demesmaeker spoke about the importance of involving the EU and the Spanish and French authorities.
The Basque Friendship group is still convinced of the need for the EU and its institutions to promote the ongoing Peace Process despite the blocking attitude of the Spanish and French Governments. And seen the importance of the issue of prisoners, the BFG makes a call to all agents to the respect of human rights and to take the necessary steps to promote the peace process.