ETA terror suspect wanted by Spain denied bail in Northern Ireland, admits using fake ID

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

ETA suspect wanted by Spain used fake Belfast ID

DUBLIN — An alleged car-bomber from the Basque terror group ETA admitted Monday he has lived in Northern Ireland since 2007 using a false identity designed to flummox Spanish detectives.

The admission came during a failed bail application by Fermin Vila Michelena, a 40-year-old Basque separatist who has been on the run from Spanish authorities since 2001. He was arrested last week in a central Belfast shopping center during a joint Northern Irish-Spanish police operation.

Judge Tom Burgess agreed with prosecutors’ arguments that Vila Michelena was likely to jump bail and go underground using a new fake identity if freed. His extradition hearing was tentatively scheduled to begin in September.

Vila Michelena is the third Basque separatist to face an extradition trial since 2008 in Belfast, a longtime pilgrimage point for ETA members and supporters seeking to forge links with the outlawed Irish Republican Army and its legal Sinn Fein party. The two previous cases ended in failure — the first because the judge rejected Spain’s claims, the second because the suspect jumped bail and fled after losing his case.

ETA has killed more than 825 people, mostly in Spain, since the late 1960s in hopes of carving out an independent Basque state in northeast Spain and southwest France.

Vila Michelena stood unsuccessfully for election in 1994 as a European Parliament candidate from the ETA-linked Batasuna party. Spain outlawed that party in 2003.

Spanish authorities accuse Vila Michelena of going on the run in 2000 as a member of a Madrid-based ETA unit that mounted several car bombings over the following year, killing several people including an army officer and policeman.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said its officers seized several fake IDs in Vila Michelena’s north Belfast apartment during a search following his arrest Thursday.

Vila Michelena’s Belfast lawyer, Sean Devine, conceded his client had adopted a phony identity because he feared extradition and considered himself “a political refugee.” Devine said Vila Michelena came to Belfast because of his interest in Northern Ireland’s peace process.

“He has long admired this country’s political process,” Devine told the judge. “He considered this would be a safe place for him to settle and live a normal life and not to be persecuted for his political beliefs.”

Devine said his client had worked for the past two years as a chef in a Belfast restaurant.

The Belfast lawyer representing the Spanish government, Stephen Ritchie, said Vila Michelena used an expertly forged Spanish national ID card and several British forms of identification, including cards for medical services and welfare benefits, all using the fabricated identity.

“Quite obviously he has access to high-quality counterfeiting,” Ritchie said.

Vila Michelena, sporting a long silvery beard and hair, didn’t directly speak during the hearing. Neither legal team disclosed Vila Michelena’s Belfast alias.

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