Spain should pardon jailed Catalan separatist leaders
MADRID – The Spanish government was due to approve on Tuesday the pardon of a group of separatists serving long prison terms for their involvement in a failed attempt to form a separatist state in the northeastern region of Catalonia, a major olive branch in a conflict that has long divided the country.
The pardons, which the Spanish government had to approve, kept Prime Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchez’s recent pledges to reconcile with a separatist movement that in 2017 rocked Spain with an independence referendum. Spanish courts have declared voting illegal and the government has ordered a crackdown, confiscation of ballots and even sending riot squads to beat scores of people trying to vote.
Authorities also ordered numerous arrests, including those of the nine politicians and pro-independence activists, who were initially sentenced to terms ranging from nine to 13 years, on charges of sedition and embezzlement of public funds. The prisoners were imprisoned about three and a half years ago.
“The pardons are meant to be a first step,” SÃ¡nchez said in a speech in Barcelona on Monday. “Only those who resist change the most would oppose it.”
Among those who should be granted leniency are Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy head of Catalonia; RaÃ¼l Romeva, who had been in charge of foreign affairs for the former Catalan government; Jordi SÃ nchez, who headed an independence group; and Jordi Cuixart, president of Omnium Cultural, a cultural organization based in Barcelona.
The pardon decision did not come without risks for Prime Minister M. SÃ¡nchez, leader of the Socialists, who rebuffed criticism that the party had been lenient towards the separatists, whom many Spaniards consider to be little more than offenders. The separatists claim they are political prisoners.
After Mr SÃ¡nchez started to take the idea of ââpardons more seriously this month, three major political parties – representing voters from Spain’s center, right and far right – protested in Madrid , in a demonstration that attracted around 25,000 people.
Polls show that most Spaniards oppose pardons.
“Pardons are a price for those who destroyed families, those who broke the law,” said InÃ©s Arrimadas, a Catalan politician who heads the centrist political party Citizens and who led a group of protesters. âIt is a humiliation for those in Catalonia who continue to be faithful to the Constitution and to follow the law.
Ms Arrimadas noted that until recently Mr SÃ¡nchez and members of his government maintained that separatists should answer for their crimes, but that his party now needs the support of Catalan nationalists to pass laws.
Many observers point out, however, that for a government that seeks to win hearts and minds in Catalonia, the timing could be favorable.
Mr SÃ¡nchez’s socialists won the most seats in a regional vote in Catalonia in February after years of delay in elections. The separatist parties eventually formed a government without them, but rallied around a moderate leader, Pere AragonÃ¨s, who is proposing a dialogue with Madrid rather than pushing for a new referendum.
Joaquim Coll, historian and columnist in Barcelona, ââsaid that in the years following the 2017 referendum, the momentum of the independence movement has waned across the region, which means there may be little threat to release the prisoners.
“I think from the state’s point of view,” he said, “it’s a gesture that confirms the state’s victory – the gesture the winner chooses to make.”
Mr Coll also said that by releasing the prisoners, the government deprived more radical members of the independence movement of martyrs who could be used to push for more confrontation with Madrid. This gives more leeway to the moderates in Catalonia.
The imprisonments stem from a long-standing dispute over who should rule in Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that is home to Barcelona as well as a distinct language and independent culture.
After Spanish courts in 2010 overturned much of a charter that sought to grant the region more autonomous powers, a regional separatist movement began to gain momentum.
The 2017 referendum came in the face of a court ruling declaring it illegal. The separatists declared victory despite opinion polls showing the public was divided on the issue, and the Catalan government declared independence – only to suspend the measure and be dissolved by the Spanish government in the crackdown.
The next confrontation took place during the trial of the independence leaders, which dominated the news for months. In 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced the group to prison terms of up to 13 years for crimes including sedition and embezzlement of public funds.
The long prison terms stunned many human rights observers, including Amnesty International, who said the jailed separatists were political prisoners in the heart of Europe.
Reactions to the expected pardons have been mixed among some members of the independence movement.
âOn a personal note, their release from prison will make me happy,â said AdriÃ Alsina, national secretary of the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence group whose leader, Mr. SÃ nchez, was among those pardoned. “But the whole process seems like a huge bad joke.”
Mr Alsina said his goal was not pardons but rather a declaration of amnesty from the Spanish government, a declaration that the prisoners had committed no crime and a deal to allow a new referendum on independence to decide on the status of Catalonia.
The Conservatives were not happy with the pardons either, but for different reasons.
“It sends a confusing message to citizens about fairness in justice,” said Trinidad Cornejo, who works as an economist in the capital, Madrid. “I’m not saying I’m against the future, but for now no, because not much time has passed and they’re not sorry.”
JosÃ© Bautista contributed reporting.