A Paris court on Wednesday acquitted former Basque separatist leader Josu Ternera on charges of participating in a terrorist organisation, citing insufficient evidence in the case. The ruling overturns a conviction and eight-year prison term handed down in 2017 when Ternera, a historic leader of the ETA group seeking independence for the Basque Country, was tried in absentia while he was on the run from the authorities.
Ternera, whose real name is Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, headed ETA from 1977 to 1992 and is thought to have been behind a strategy of combining car bomb and shooting attacks in Spain in the 1980s.
The group's attacks left at least 850 people dead in northern Spain and southwest France, an area considered the Basque homeland. The group was formally dissolved in 2018.
In hiding since 2002, Ternera was convicted in absentia in France on charges he continued to take part in ETA's operations from 2011 to 2013 while living clandestinely in France.
Since the conviction was handed down in his absence, Ternera, who was arrested in France in 2019, was able to request a retrial.
The court on Wednesday said there was no solid evidence that Ternera had been in contact with ETA members during the period, nor that he had been living "under a false name," since no fake ID papers had been found.
The 70-year-old Ternera, wearing a black suit vest, gave one of his lawyer's a long hug before leaving the courtroom without making a statement.
"We are relieved and satisfied, this was the only decision possible," said Laurent Pasquet-Marinacce, a member of Ternera's defence team.
After eluding police for years, Ternera was arrested in May 2019 in the parking lot of a hospital in the French Alps where he was to undergo an operation.
Spanish authorities had been hunting him since 2002 over a 1987 attack on a police barracks in the northern city of Zaragoza that killed 11 people, five of them children.
A top French court had already ruled last year that Ternera could be extradited to Spain, once his French court proceedings were completed.
He will again face judges later this month on similar charges of participating in ETA from 2002 to 2005, for which he had already been convicted on appeal in absentia to seven years in prison in 2010.
Ternera's lawyers said he would again be present for those hearings, but refused to be drawn on whether Wednesday's ruling bodes well for his client.
Formed in 1959 during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, ETA, an abbreviation of Basque Homeland and Liberty, waged a deadly separatist campaign that sharply divided many Basque communities and families.
The group renounced violence in 2011, and was formally dissolved in 2018.
In April, the group's last surviving founder, Julen Madariaga, died after a long illness in Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle, southwest France.