BILBAO, Spain — Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Spain's troubled Basque region Saturday, calling for the government to legalize a new pro-independence party that says it rejects violence by the armed separatist group ETA.
The Supreme Court on March 24 denied the party, Sortu, legal status and barred it from running in local elections in May, finding that the party is a repackaged version of ETA's outlawed political wing Batasuna.
Sortu can appeal to the Constitutional Court, but that ruling will likely come after the May 22 elections.
The gathering was unusual in that Basque national flags were not visible, unlike at almost all separatist rallies. Another unusual feature was that no one carried banners with ETA prisoners on them. Basque separatists have for decades pressed the Spanish government to allow ETA members convicted of terrorist offenses to serve their prison sentences in the Basque region instead of at jails in distant corners of the country.
Ainoa Bilbao, 39, who was born in Bilbao but now lives in Britain, had traveled from London to be at the march.
"I expect this to be a step on the way to the legalization of Sortu and toward the normalization of the Basque region," said Bilbao, adding she hoped the Constitutional Court will legalize Sortu.
The new party, which was unveiled on Feb. 7, is the culmination of intense internal debates within ETA-linked pro-independence groups that concluded that bombs and bullets were no longer an effective way to seek a Basque state independent of Spain and France.
The Spanish government has repeatedly said Batasuna and its members must reject ETA and condemn violence in order to regain legal status and take part in Basque politics.