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Otegi goes on trial for trying to relaunch Batasuna

Prosecutors claim eight accused were following orders from ETA

Batasuna's former leader Arnaldo Otegi went on trial with seven others on Monday before the High Court on charges of trying to regroup his outlawed party on behalf of ETA.

The so-called "Bateragune" case- which means "meeting place" in Basque- centers on allegations that Otegi was following ETA's instructions to organize a nationalist abertzale alliance that would become the terrorist group's new political wing.

Answering the prosecutor's questions, Otegi said that he has been looking for "democratic and peaceful" ways to work toward the goal of an independent Basque Country.

"I am going to deny that I and my companions formed Bateragune. But I am not going to deny my political activism because I understand that we should embark on the task to find a change of strategy for the abertzale," he said.

Prosecutors are asking for 10-year sentences for Otegi and his co-defendants.

Otegi's defense lawyers argued on Monday that there is no evidence to link the one-time Batasuna leader to a possible reorganization of the abertzale left on ETA's behalf.

During his testimony before High Court Judge Ángela Murillo, Otegi also told the trial prosecutor that "there was a clear contradiction between his proposals and ETA's own plans."

Otegi explained that the abertzale began considering "a change of strategy" following the ETA bombing at the T4 terminal parking garage at Madrid's Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorian nationals in December 2006. Discussions were begun by Otegi, Rufi Etxeberria and Rafael Díez Usabiaga, the former leader of the Basque-left union LAB. "If this is a crime, then I and the others are guilty. But if this is not a crime, we are evidently innocent," he said.

Otegi went on trial along with seven others, including Díez Usabiaga and other abertzale left activists Miren Zabaleta, Arkaitz Rodríguez, Sonia Jacinto, Amaia Esnal, Txelui Moreno and José Manuel Serra.

Early on Monday, Díez Usabiaga testified that the former Batasuna officials wanted to distance themselves from ETA.

The eight defendants formed the so-called Bateragune permanent commission, according to prosecutors, who also claim they were trying to form an alliance of legal pro-independence parties, such as Eusko Alkartasuna (EA) and Aralar to recruit them "in the fight between the Basque Country and the Spanish state."

The defendants were all arrested on October 13, 2009 while they were meeting at the LAB headquarters in San Sebastián, which they were using as their headquarters.

Despite these arrests, the abertzale went on to form the pro-independence Bildu coalition with EA and Alternatiba before capturing a score of municipalities, including San Sebastián, in the Basque Country and Navarre in the May 22 elections.

Only Otegi, Zabaleta, Rodríguez and Jacinto remain in custody. Díez Usabiaga has been freed on bail of 30,000 euros since April 2010 when High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón granted his release so he could take care of his mother.

Many prominent Basque nationalists and supporters from elsewhere turned up for the first day of the trial, including Joan Tardá, a deputy with the leftist Catalan ERC, who called the proceedings an "obstacle to the normalization" of what constitutes a fair trial. Also present was Jon Abril, the deputy coordinator of Aralar, who told reporters that it was "important to support the defendants," who include Miren Zabaleta, the daughter of one of Aralar's founders, Patxi Zabaleta.

But Francisco José Alcaraz, president of the Voices Against Terrorism, who also showed up, said he was confident that the court will convict those who "made up ETA's political wing."

Supporting the terrorist victims, Popular Party spokesman Esteban González Pons asked the courts to apply the law in the "strictest and [most] irreproachable" manner to ensure that the defendants are found guilty.