World Bulletin / News Desk
Europe's top human rights court ordered Spain on Monday to free a Basque separatist militant, saying her extended prison sentence was illegal, a ruling victims groups warned would lead to the early release of dozens of violent prisoners.
The Strasbourg-based court also told Madrid to pay 30,000 euros ($41,100) compensation to Ines del Rio who was jailed in 1989 for her role in 23 assassinations and car bombings carried out by the Basque independence movement ETA.
Del Rio had been scheduled for early release in 2008, but Spanish courts extended her sentence and those of dozens of other convicted ETA members after victims' groups pressured the government.
Upholding an earlier ruling that had been appealed by Spain, judges at the European Court of Human Rights overwhelmingly decided her rights had been violated by the retroactive changes to sentencing rules.
"Having regard to ... the urgent need to put an end to the violations (the court) had found, it considered it incumbent on the Spanish authorities to ensure that Ms del Rio Prada was released at the earliest possible date," it said in a statement.
Voices Against Terrorism, which represents victims of political violence, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy not to comply with the European ruling.
"Compliance will betray victims of terrorism and all Spaniards," it said in a statement.
"Terrorists will get out of jail," the president of Spain's Terrorist Victims Association said earlier.
Del Rio originally received prison sentences totalling more than 3,000 years covering all her convictions - though Spanish law capped the amount of time someone could spend in prison for murder at 30 years.
In 2006, Spanish courts ruled time off for good behaviour should be subtracted from the total sentence handed out to a prisoner, not the 30-year limit. That meant Del Rio would have had no chance of getting out before the three-decade limit had passed.
This sentencing practice is known as the "Parot Doctrine", after the first ETA prisoner it was applied to, Henry Parot.
About 600 ETA members are in prison in Spain. Of those, 61 have had their prison terms extended.
ETA, which killed more than 800 people over more than four decades, many with car bombs, proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire two years ago.
The group has been severely weakened by hundreds of arrests and flagging political and social support in Basque Country.
The group has called on the government to negotiate a disarmament in exchange for prisoner releases. But successive governments - both Socialists and the centre-right - have refused to engage ETA, saying its only option is to disband and turn over all its weapons.
Spanish authorities had anticipated the ruling and government ministers said last week said they would study how to apply it. However, they argued that the sentences do not violate human rights.