Amnesty calls for immediate release of jailed Catalan leader

Group says continuing detention without charge is excessive and disproportionate

Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of a Catalan pro-independence leader who has been in prison for almost four months, saying his continuing detention without charge is excessive and disproportionate.

Jordi Sànchez, the former president of the influential grassroots Catalan National Assembly (ANC), has been in custody since mid-October, when he and another civil society group leader, Jordi Cuixart, were arrested as part of an investigation into alleged sedition in the run-up to the regional independence referendum a fortnight earlier.

The pair have been accused of using huge demonstrations to try to stop Spanish police officers from following a judge’s orders to halt the referendum, which had already been suspended by the country’s constitutional court.

A Spanish supreme court judge on Tuesday refused a request to free Sànchez, who is also an MP for the Together for Catalonia party of the deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont.

Judge Pablo Llarena said he would not release the politician on the grounds that he could once again try to push for unilateral Catalan independence, adding that Sànchez had played a major role in “the mass demonstrations that favoured a social uprising”.

Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s Europe director, said that while Llarena could have used the opportunity to release Sànchez, he had instead aggravated an existing injustice.

“The extension of Jordi Sànchez’s provisional custody constitutes an excessive and disproportionate restriction on his right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” she said.

Van Gulik said the possible rebellion and sedition charges Sànchez and Cuixart faced were unjustified and should be dropped.

“Although calling protests to obstruct legitimate police operations can – if proof is produced of their commission – constitute a public order offence, it does not constitute a serious crime such as sedition or rebellion.”

The continuing detention of senior Catalan secessionist leaders, including the ousted regional vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, has prompted accusations that the Spanish courts are holding them as political prisoners – a claim denied by both judges and the Spanish government.

Last week, Llarena refused to release the former Catalan interior minister, Joaquim Forn. Although Forn had already stepped down as an MP, the judge said he feared the politician could reoffend “given the uncertainty over whether the majority political will is to respect the legal order to achieve the aspiration of independence that [Forn] shares even today”.

Lawyers acting for Sànchez, Cuixart and Junqueras have appealed to the United Nations, claiming the men are unlawfully imprisoned.

Catalan pro-independence parties retained their parliamentary majority in December’s snap election, which was called by the Spanish government after it sacked Puigdemont’s administration over its unilateral independence drive.

Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels in late October, faces arrest on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds the moment he returns to Spain.

However, he remains the only candidate for the Catalan presidency and is reported to be exploring the legal and political possibilities of setting up an exiled “Council of the Republic” in Belgium while a government in Barcelona focuses on the day-to-day running of Catalonia.

According to the Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia, Puigdemont plans to establish the council in Brussels on 18 February, while a separate session would see him voted in as Catalan president in the regional parliament three or four days later. Were the latter option to prove difficult, the other pro-independence parties would be offered an alternative candidate from Together for Catalonia.

The Spanish government is fiercely opposed to Puigdemont’s return to office and has said a “clean candidate” needs to be put forward to lead the region.

It has also said that the emergency legislation that allowed it to take control of Catalonia will remain in force until a new president is sworn in. If no candidate is proposed and approved over the coming weeks, parliament will be dissolved and new elections called.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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