Spain holds trial of Basque separatist group ETA

Fifty-six people went on trial Monday on charges of directing the logistical side of the Basque separatist group ETA's battle for an independent homeland by allegedly raising funds, forging passports and helping commandos communicate with one another. The trial is the largest ever in terms of the number of defendants to go before the National Court, the Spanish tribunal that deals with affairs of state and terrorism cases. Spain, the European Union and the United States classify ETA as a terrorist organization.

The case stems from an eight-year probe by Baltasar Garzon, Spain's leading anti-terror investigator.

Some of the defendants defiantly showed an unofficial Basque identity card instead of the official Spanish one as they entered the court. Most wore gray T-shirts that read "For civil and political rights" in Basque and the number of the case file, 18/98, crossed out.

The trial, which is to hear testimony from more than 300 people, is being held under tight security at a trade fair pavilion. The normal venue for such proceedings would be the National Court, but it is too small for a trial with so many defendants, lawyers and reporters. The site was used earlier this year for Europe's first major trial of suspected al-Qaida members.

Those on trial include alleged members of Basque youth groups and other organizations and businesses that portrayed themselves as coordinators of pro-independence activities but were banned by Garzon on grounds they were a front for fund-raising and other support for ETA.

These groups were the "stomach, heart and head" of ETA, prosecutor Jesus Santos said last week.

The accused are charged with crimes ranging from membership in or collaboration with a terrorist organization to tax violations, and each is facing a sentence varying from 10 to 51 years in jail. The proceedings coincide with a relative lull in attacks by ETA, which has been blamed for more than 800 deaths since the late 1960s but has not carried out a lethal one since May 2003, when it killed two policemen in a car-bombing in the northern town of Sanguesa, reports the AP. I.L.

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