THREE YEARS WITHOUT JUSTICE
by Diarmuid Breatnach
Most Basques and especially supporters of their most popular football team, Athletic Bilbao (1), were very happy in the early evening of 5th April 2012. Their team had beaten a football giant in the UEFA cup twice and another premier European team once. The fans were expecting Athletic to win or at least draw again that evening, in which case Athletic Bilbao were through to the second leg of the quarter-finals. They had no idea that the evening would end with a police riot squad firing rubber bullets into a festive crowd, causing the death of a young fan.
The high expectations of that evening in Bilbao were the result of a run of wins for the Athletic team. On March 8th 2012, Athletic Bilbao beat Manchester United 3-2 on their own ground, at Old Trafford.
One needs to know a few population statistics to understand what an achievement that was. Manchester United are a team on the world stage, based in a city with a population of 2.55 million – that is not far from the population for the entire Basque Country. In addition, Manchester United’s players are drawn from around the world; Athletic recruits only Basque players from a total population of the Basque Country of less than 3 million.
A week after their win in the northern England city, on March 13th, Athletic faced Manchester United again, this time on the Basque team’s home ground, San Mames, in Bilbao. Manchester Utd. were beaten 2-1 and it seemed that the Basque lions (2) were unstoppable.
These wins created a huge interest in the next game, which was with FC Schalke 04 on March 29th at the German team’s home ground. Schalke plays in the top tier of the German football league and have won many championships including one UEFA League. With around 130,000 members, Schalke 04 is the third-largest sports club in the world in terms of membership, behind their compatriot rival FC Bayern Munich and Portuguese club SL Benfica.
Athletic Bilbao is not a sports conglomerate – it is a football club which is owned by its 40,000 members (remember, this is a small country – that’s nearly 1.5% of the whole population! It’s also around 11% of the population of their home base, Bilbao). The management board is elected by the membership.
At Schalke 04’s home ground on March 29th, the Bilbaino team beat them 2-4. The interest was therefore at fever-pitch for Athletic’s return match with the German team at Athletic’s home ground, San Mames on 5th April. The result was a 2-2 draw but Athletic were ahead 6-4 on aggregate and the fans were delighted. Bilbao was, as they say, buzzing.
After matches, young fans especially go to different pubs around town. Inigo Cabacas and many others went to an Herriko Taberna (a ‘Peoples’ Tavern, i.e. one managed by theAbertzale [Basque pro-Independence] Left) which is located in an small ‘square’ with planters, connected by alley with Licenciado Poza street. This small ‘square’ is off the María Díaz de Haro street near the stadium; it runs parallell with the San Mames street itself, an area of bars well-known as a destination for fans after a game at the stadium.
The Herriko is too small to accommodate all those who gathered there but that was no problem for the area outside took the overspill. Early in the evening a few people were seen scuffling there and the rest of the crowd around them told them to knock it off, this was a time for celebration, etc. The scuffle ended and the festivities continued.
Some time later, a van load of police arrived. These were the Ertzaintza, a Basque Police force of 7,500 created in 1982 which has had numerous clashes with Basque strike picketsand with the Abertzale (pro-Independence) Left. Supporters of the Abertzale Left and many others refer to the Ertzaintza as ‘zipayos‘ (i.e. ‘sepoys’, local soldiers recruited by colonial occupiers). The Ertzaintza are responsible to the Basque Autonomous Region Government(CAV), a semi-autonomous entity covering three of the four southern Basque provinces.
Some of the youth perceive the arrival of the masked and helmeted police as a provocation and begin to throw bottles at the van.
The police officer in charge of those in the van asks for reinforcements and these are sent. The police emerge from their vans and begin to fire rubber bullets (3) at the crowd at quite close range (the ‘square’ is less than 45 metres at its furthest from the street) and everyone scatters except for a small group who are throwing bottles at the police but even they eventually dive for cover. People are sheltering in doorways, huddled up against the walls on each side of the “square”. Some are inside the pub wondering what is going on. A local shop-manager has raised the shutter over his doorway and people crowd in there. Some people are sheltering behind the wooden planters that are in a line down the centre of the narrow square.
After some time three young men walk towards the police with their hands in the air, asking them to stop firing rubber bullets; the police strike them with batons. Meanwhile it comes to the attention of some in the crowd nearby that a person is lying on the ground, apparently unconscious with blood coming from his ear and the rear of his head. People go to his aid and one of his friends recognises Inigo Cabacas. He gets his mobile phone and rushes towards the police telling them that someone has been seriously injured and to call an ambulance. A police officer tells him to drop the mobile. Inigo’s friend repeats his urgent request and the police officer tells him again to drop the mobile and hits him with a truncheon. The man drops his mobile and retreats from the police.
The police advance into the area and reach the injured man who has some people around him; a women is rendering first aid. A policeman tells her to move away. She tells him the man needs and ambulance and that she is applying pressure to stop the bleeding. He says he wants to see for himself and pulls at her arm but after awhile desists and goes away.
Eventually an ambulance arrives and takes Inigo Cabacas, still unconscious, to hospital, where he lies in a coma.
(video of the scene of the incident and interviews with friends and witnesses with English subtitles)
The news runs through a city, a shock in the midst of its celebrations and soon afterwards throughout the Basque Country. The first official reaction is given by the Interior Minister of the Basque Autonomous Regional Government, who declares to the press that the Ertzaintza acted properly and in line with their procedures, although he regrets the unfortunate death of they young man. He also repeats the first line of defence given by the Ertzaintza, that they were called to help someone injured in a fight and that the crowd was preventing the ambulance in attendance from rendering assistance to the injured.
When eye-witnesses give their version and the reporters of some newpapers begin to gather information, it becomes clear that the Minister could not possibly have investigated the incident in the time available. Furthermore, it emerges that no ambulance attended until after the incident with the police and that it appears that no call for one had been made earlier. Furthermore, according to the woman who attended to Inigo at the scene, the ambulance paramedic told her, when she complained at their delay in arriving, that the police had delayed their entrance. Under a storm of criticism from civil society and from the Abertzale Left party, EH Bildu, the Minister promises a full investigation.
Inigo Cabacas dies after three days without having recovered consciousness.
Some time later, a recording of the police communications on the night is made available by GARA, a pro-Independence Basque daily newspaper. The following becomes clear from the recording:
* The Controller at Ertzaintza HQ calls a police van leader and directs him to attend the Herriko, saying that a fight has occurred there and that someone is injured.
* The van leader reports that they have arrived and that some are throwing bottles at them, that they require reinforcements. No mention of ambulance.
* The Controller confirms reinforcements are being sent.
* Reinforcements arrive. One of the van leaders now reports that nothing is happening, everything is ok.
* The Controller replies that he wants the police to go in and take possession of the area and make any arrests necessary. He emphasises that he wants to be understood clearly, that they are to “go into the Herriko with everything we have”, to take control of the area “and then everything will be ok.”
* The van leader replies that the order is understood and soon shots are heard (the firing of rubber bullets).
The family employs a solicitor. A judge is appointed to carry out the investigation but is required to do so along with her other duties. Immediately, the police investigation ceases (according to the family’s lawyer, the file contains just three pages), using the excuse of the judicial investigation.
A number of legal applications are made, e.g. for all the police at the incident to be obliged to make a statement, for all police who fired a rubber bullet gun to be identified, for the Controller to be obliged to make a statement, but all are refused by a judge, giving a number of reasons (4). Little is established over the following three years, except that three police voluntarily admit to having fired rubber bullets and the identity of the Controller on the evening becomes widely known. There is widespread outrage when the senior officer on duty the day of Inigo’s death is appointed Chief of the Ertzaintza. At a recent press conference, the Cabacas family’s lawyer, Jone Goirizelaia, announced that they had possibly identified the officer who had fired the fatal shot.
It emerged during the campaign by supporters of the Cabacas family that no recognised procedure was followed by the police with regard to the incident: debriefing statements were not taken from each of the police participants, guns were not examined to identify which had been fired, no inventory was taken of the number of rubber bullets fired. No attempt was made to contact witnesses after the event to gain a picture of what had occurred. Indeed, some witnesses who approached the police station to give statements were told to go away (see video link posted earlier in this article). It further appears that the Ertzaintza have been issued with no specific operational instructions with regard to the firing of rubber bullets.
According to some sources, the rubber bullets should only be fired at knee-height and at no less than 50 metres from the target. The ‘square’ is, according to locals, less than 45 metres at its furthest from the street and therefore the police from the moment they began firing, were in serious breach of the minimum distance requirements. In addition, the Ertzaintza have frequently been seen aiming their rubber bullet guns at protesters’ faces from as little as a metre or two and also firing from the shoulder with the muzzle parallel to the ground, i.e. directed at head or chest-height of the target. Also, the rubber-coated steel balls bounce uncontrollably.
Rubber bullets against Palestinians
Rubber bullets are regularly fired by the Israeli army at Palestinians. A Palestinian source reports: “Israeli professor Michael Krausz and colleagues at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa analysed the medical records of 595 casualties admitted to hospital during the October 2000 protests by Palestinians living inside Israel (typically described as “Israeli Arabs” by the media). Of those, 152 were found to have been injured by rubber-coated metal bullets. Injuries were distributed randomly across their bodies but were most common on the patients’ arms and legs, and on their head, neck and face.
“The doctors said their findings dismissed the theory that “rubber bullets” were safe.Rubber-coated metal bullets with some of their rubber coating removed, revealing their hard steel core. Fired at speeds of what must be several hundred feet a second, these are munitions that cause enough damage that their manufacturers feel compelled to describe them as only ‘less lethal’.
“Writing in the Lancet, they said firing the bullets at civilians made it ‘impossible to avoid severe injuries to vulnerable body regions such as the head, neck and upper torso, leading to substantial mortality, morbidity and disability.’ They added: ‘We reported a substantial number of severe injuries and fatalities inflicted by use of rubber bullets ….. This type of ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control. “The study, ‘Blunt and penetrating injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in October, 2000: a retrospective study’ (The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9320, Page 1795), also highlighted previous research which suggested that even plastic bullets may not be safe and may cause more severe head injuries.” (Sourced at http://electronicintifada.net/content/misleading-terminology-rubber-bullets/4000)
Rubber bullets against the Irish
Seventeen people were killed in the Six Counties (‘Northern Ireland’) by rubber and plastic bullets fired by British soldiers (11) and colonial police (6) during the 30 Years War. A number of people were also blinded. (http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/violence/rubberplasticbullet.htm)
It emerged in 2013 during a compensation case taken by a Derry man blinded in 1972 that the authorities knew that the missiles were potentially lethal even before they issued them.(http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/11/mod-rubber-bullets-lethal-records) It is clear also from a wealth of evidence that the missiles were regularly fired by soldiers and police not only at close range but also aimed at chest or head. In addition, a deadly ‘game’ was played by some British soldiers. Knowing that rubber and plastic bullets were collected by children as mementoes and objects to sell to tourists, soldiers would fire some into an open area and wait for children to run forward to collect them, then see if they could hit the children with subsequent rounds.
Rubber bullets in the Spanish state
The Spanish state continues to allow its police forces to carry and to fire rubber-coated metal bullets, in particular at protesting Basques and Catalans. Recently, the EU expressed concern at Spanish police firing at migrants attempting to swim into the Spanish state from Morocco, an occasion when 11 of the migrants drowned. But no international protest criticises them for firing potentially lethal missiles at their own citizens. Police in the Spanish state enjoy impunity and none more so than in the Basque and Catalan countries as well as with regard to African migrants. This week, a motion was put to the Basque Parliament to ban the use of rubber bullets in the area under its control (CAV). Instead a proposal was accepted to “restrict” the use of the missiles to “situations of grave danger” to the police, and to “definitely seek a replacement” for them. The Spanish right-wing PP, the liberal Spanish unionist UPyD, along with the PNV (Basque Nationalists), currently in power, voted for it, along with the Basque version of the Spanish social-democrats, the PSE. The only party to vote against the amendment was EH Bildu, party of the Abertzale (pro-Independence) Left; they had proposed the original motion, seeking a total ban and the removal of the missiles.
Among those in the public gallery at the discussion were the parents of Inigo Cabacas. Afterwards, in the corridor outside, they confronted the spokesperson of the PNV, Joseba Egibar.During the exchange, another PNV parliamentarian, Luke Uribe-Etxebarria, tried to prevent its filming by the Basque TV station ETB. That attempt will be the subject of a complaint to the President of the Parliament by EH Bildu; they view it as particularly serious since Uribe-Etxebarria is also on the management board of the TV station and the filming was taking place in areas open to the public.
“I’m never coming to this Parliament again… I feel cheated,” said Manue Cabacas, father of the deceased, speaking about the majority decision. “My son is dead… I only wanted to ensure that it would never happen to anyone else …”
On the third anniversary of the killing of Inigo “Pitu” Cabacas, among many commemorative vents in the Basque Country, 10 minutes’ silence was observed in the San Mames stadium. Alongside Inigo Cabacas; many are also remembering Aitor Zabaleta, fan of the Real Sociedad team, murdered in Madrid in 1998 by fascist ultras of Club Atletico Madrid. Many Basques around the world will be conscious of the three years that have passed since Inigo’s killing without anyone being even charged in connection with his death or any noticeable change, whether in Basque police behaviour, procedure or their use of rubber-coated steel projectiles. A change of political control of the Basque Regional Government from the social-democratice party of Patxi Lopez to the Basque Nationalist Party . (PNV) of Urkullu has had no effect.
It is true that for ordinary people, in capitalist society, the wheels of justice move very slowly; in this case it is hard to see that they are moving at all.
1 Based in Bilbao, it is the most popular and most successful (two things that often go together) but not the only football team; there are also Real Sociedad, based in Donosti/San Sebastian and Osasuna, based in Iruña/ Pamplona.
2 A roaring lion is the emblem of the team, arising from the legend of St. Mames, to whom the local church is dedicated and which gives its name to the area, street and stadium. English-language football commentators persisted in calling the team “the Spanish lions” or ‘the Spanish cavaliers’ (??!), in total ignorance, one hopes, of quite how insultingly that would be perceived by the players and their fans. The Basque Country is not even politico-geographically Spain, it is divided between the Spanish and French states. And Bilbao Athletic is most certainly not, nor has it ever been, a Spanish team. When the Spanish King attends finals or semi-finals between Barcelona and Athletic in, yes, a Spanish football league, and the Spanish national anthem is played, the stadium fills with howls of derision, hoots and whistles from the supporters of both teams.
3 These are about the size of a tennis ball, perhaps a little smaller, of steel and coated in rubber.
4 E.g., the Controller could not be held responsible for the shooting by the police; individual police would have to be accused of firing the fatal shot if they were to be obliged to make a statement …
many thanks to Diarmuid Breatnach for allowing us to reprint his article. It first appeared in the wonderful Irish blog ‘Rebel Breeze, always thought provoking and entertaining. Click here to go and have a look. Go on then…go and have a look.
*if you live in or around Dublin there will be a commemorative event on Tuesday 28thApril, on the day of a Basque derby, Bilbao Athletic v. Real Sociedad. They plan to hold a protest picket at the O’Connell Monument in Dublin’s O’Connell Street at 7pm for a short while and afterwards to go to watch the Basque derby (kick-off at 9pm) at the Living Room bar, Cathal Brugha St. Facebook event page here.