Catalonia’s status continues to divide Spain: New Frame
Painted on lampposts and walls, or glued to jacket lapels or even face masks, yellow ribbons have been ubiquitous in the northeastern region of Catalonia in Spain in recent years. They served as a symbol of solidarity with nine independence leaders of this autonomous community who were imprisoned at the end of 2017 following the failure of Catalonia’s attempt to secede from Spain.
Released from prison in June this year after the Spanish government pardoned them, the seven men and two women were considered the last “political prisoners” in Western Europe by the independence movement. The reprieve was intended to ease tensions in society, but the conflict is far from over.
It first erupted in October 2017 when ruling separatists in the Catalan parliament declared independence after a referendum on self-determination that was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. No country has recognized this decision and the Spanish government has temporarily suspended the autonomy of Catalonia, which has 7.7 million inhabitants and its own national identity.
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A number of Catalan officials have gone into exile, including former President Carles Puigdemont, while others, like his deputy, Oriol Junqueras, have decided to stay. A total of seven MPs and two activists were convicted of sedition and, in 2019, were sentenced to heavy sentences ranging from nine to 13 years in prison.
When asked whether the arrested Catalan separatist leaders could have been considered political prisoners, Adriana Ribas, coordinator and spokesperson for the Amnesty International branch in Catalonia, replied that “there is no international definition of this concept, we have therefore stopped using it ”.
Criminalize political protest
Instead, Amnesty International’s campaigns in Catalonia have focused on political activists Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, who were preemptively jailed in October 2017 for staging a protest the previous month. They “should never have ended up in prison for peaceful disobedience,” said Ribas, adding that their conviction and nine-year sentence for sedition opens the door to the criminalization of all types of street protests.
Cuixart is the president of Òmnium Cultural, an organization created 60 years ago to defend the Catalan identity. It has 183,000 members, more than any other political party in Spain, and openly supports independence. The director of its international relations department, Elena Jiménez Botías, maintains that Cuixart was jailed for his ideology. “As president of Òmnium, he is the symbol of a cause. He was jailed for playing a leading role in a peaceful protest which, in fact, started spontaneously. ”
All of the pro-independence leaders have been tried by the Supreme Court of Spain, which is widely considered biased in Catalonia. “We are not saying Spain is an authoritarian country like Turkey, but some courts – not all – are clearly politicized,” said Jiménez, who stresses that law reform is needed.
His point of view is supported by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which on June 21 issued a declaration on its resolution that Spain should “reform the penal provisions on rebellion and sedition in such a way that ‘they cannot be interpreted in such a way as to cancel the decriminalization of the organization of an illegal referendum, wanted by the legislator when it abolished this specific offense in 2005, or lead to disproportionate sanctions for non-violent transgressions ”.
The hard blows to the Spanish government have also come from European countries where Catalan leaders in exile live. German, Belgian, Swiss and Scottish judges have rejected all extradition requests, which is unusual among European countries.
Àlex Ramos, vice-president of Societat Civil Catalana (Catalan Civil Society), a Barcelona-based organization that promotes the region’s union with Spain, doesn’t think the Catalan leaders have been persecuted for their ideology. “Being in office they violated the legal system and that is why they were tried,” he said.
On October 8, 2017, a week after the referendum, the company gathered a large mass of people in Barcelona for a rally against Catalan independence. According to the organizers and the Spanish government, it brought together more than a million people, while the Barcelona police estimated it at 350,000. To date, it is the largest demonstration of unity pro- Spanish history of Catalonia.
The 2017 clashes over the self-determination referendum are the latest chapter in a centuries-old history of conflicting relations between Spain and Catalonia. The Catalans, who speak a language different from Spanish and have their own civil codes, celebrate their national day on September 11 when, in 1714, Catalonia lost a war and its sovereignty, becoming an integral part of Spain.
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The Catalan language and identity were repressed at different times, but more harshly during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975. The separatist parties obtained a small majority in the Catalan parliament only a decade ago, after the Court Constitution of Spain overturned a new law that would have granted more powers to Catalonia. According to the polls, the Catalans are divided in two on the question of independence.
The Spanish government is adamant that the pardon of the Catalan leaders will change the dynamics of the conflict. “Forgiveness is a resounding message that we want to rely on everyone. We must join forces to put a bad past behind us and build a better future, ”Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told his Spanish Socialist Workers Party in July.
Anger at forgiveness
But the pardons caused a political storm in Spain. Pablo Casado, leader of the Popular Party, called for the resignation of the Prime Minister and accused him of “treason” and “selling Spain at auction”. He argued that Sánchez had granted pardons in exchange for Catalan party support for his minority government. The conservative opposition has gathered thousands of signatures against the measure.
Ramos says Societat Civil Catalana also does not want the government to negotiate with secessionist parties. “They need the support of the pro-independence parties in Congress, and they are not listening to those in Catalonia who are not nationalists,” he said.
He argues that the separatists are doing a good job selling an image of victims oppressed by the Spanish state. “Those of us who are victimized are the Catalans who feel Spanish,” Ramos said. “We are helpless. We are really hurt and invisible to the eyes of the Catalan and Spanish governments. “
The so-called dialogue table between the Spanish and Catalan governments met in mid-September in Barcelona with the aim of resolving the conflict through negotiation. Pere Aragonès, the president of Catalonia, said earlier that his government would present “two demands which can resolve the conflict and which are supported by an overwhelming majority of Catalans: amnesty and an independence referendum”.
By “amnesty”, Aragonès meant a pardon for all the other separatist activists who are still being prosecuted in Spanish courts. However, Sánchez has already warned that he will not even discuss these two proposals, which he considers to be unconstitutional.
Societat Civil Catalana also does not support a referendum, claiming it would mean “the victory of half of Catalonia over the other half,” Ramos said. Nevertheless, the idea of a referendum enjoys the support of more than 70% of Catalans, according to the polls.
A political failure
Josep Ramoneda, a Catalan journalist, describes the conflict since 2017 as a “failure of Spanish policy” and accuses former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in office from 2011 to 2018. “He had the opportunity to seek a political means to resolve the conflict. . The lawsuit only made the Spanish political situation worse, ”Ramoneda said.
He acknowledges that the independence movement made a major mistake when it tried to declare independence when there was no possibility of that happening. “We have been in a hangover period since the events of 2017,” he says. “Forgiveness has helped a certain [easing of tension] in society. Now we must return to politics without fear.
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Since his release from prison, Cuixart has said over and over again “we will do it again”, striking a note of defiance which did not please Madrid. The ‘dialogue table’ looks set to fail, with radicals on both sides pushing mainstream parties to reject any concessions – meaning there is no end in sight for the so-called Catalan conflict .