Violent clashes over Catalan separatist leaders' prison terms

Chaos at Barcelona airport as protesters react to sentencing over 2017 bid for independence

The Catalan independence crisis erupted again on Monday as police and protesters clashed at Barcelona airport hours after the Spanish supreme court jailed nine Catalan separatist leaders over their roles in the failed bid for secession two years ago.

Protesters took to the streets, with many gathering at Barcelona’s El Prat airport after the court acquitted the nine defendants of the charge of violent rebellion but convicted them variously of sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience.

By late afternoon, thousands of protesters had answered a call from the Tsunami Democràtic movement designed to bring the airport to a standstill.

Thousands set off by car, train and metro. When police closed the station, even more made the three-and-a-half hour journey on foot. Several people were injured as police baton-charged protesters on the concourse of Terminal 1, the main international terminal. Foam bullets were reported to have been fired and video emerged of national and the regional Catalan police beating demonstrators and attacking journalists.

Thirteen people received medical attention and more than 60 flights were cancelled.

Tsunami Democràtic later claimed to be trying to use cars to bring Madrid’s Barajas airport to a similar standstill.

On Monday morning, Catalonia’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was also banned from holding public office for 13 years.

The nine Catalan separatist leaders sentenced on Monday
The nine Catalan separatist leaders sentenced on Monday. Composite: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The former Catalan foreign minister Raül Romeva, labour minister Dolors Bassa and regional government spokesman Jordi Turull were each convicted of the same offences and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and handed 12-year bans on holding office.

Carme Forcadell, a former speaker of the Catalan parliament, was sentenced to 11 and a half years, while the former interior minister Joaquim Forn and territorial minister Josep Rull got 10 and a half years each.

Two influential pro-independence grassroots activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were found guilty of sedition and given nine-year sentences.

Three other independence leaders were found guilty of disobedience and handed fines and bans from holding office.

The four-month trial heard from 422 witnesses and investigated the events that triggered the country’s worst political crisis since it returned to democracy after the death of General Franco.

Less than five hours after the seven judges’ verdicts were announced, an international arrest warrant was reissued for the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who spearheaded the push for independence. The warrant said Puigdemont, who fled into self-imposed exile in Belgium to avoid arrest by the Spanish authorities, was wanted for alleged sedition and misuse of public funds.

Junqueras urged supporters not to give up on Catalan independence. “We’ll return stronger and with even more belief than ever,” he tweeted. “Thanks to everyone, keep fighting because we will keep fighting for ever.”

Sànchez, a regional MP and former president of the influential grassroots Catalan National Assembly, said his nine-year sentence would not dent his optimism nor his belief in an independent Catalonia. He made a plea for calm. “Let’s express ourselves without fear and move forward, non-violently, towards freedom,” he tweeted.

Spain’s acting prime minister, the socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, said his government respected the supreme court’s decision, which he said met all the requirements of due process, transparency and separation of powers.

“Nobody is above the law,” he said. “In a democracy like Spain, nobody is subject to trial for his or her ideas or politics but rather for criminal conduct as provided by the law.”

Sánchez said the Catalan independence movement had tried to subvert the Spanish constitution and had created a fracture within Catalan society “by refusing to recognise the majority who oppose independence”.

Despite the long sentences handed down by the supreme court on 14 October, some of the nine leaders convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds could soon be eligible to apply for “semi-liberty”, allowing them out of prison on a regular basis.

Josep María Tamarit, a professor of criminal law at the Open University of Catalonia, said that in cases where a sentence of five years or more was handed out, a court could stipulate “that half the sentence has to be served before prisoners are eligible for semi-liberty”.

However, the supreme court turned down prosecutors’ request for such an order in the Catalan case.

That means that Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart – who have now served two years in pre-trial detention – could apply to be allowed out on licence as soon as they have served a quarter of their sentences, which would be in January next year.

Oriol Junqueras, who received the longest sentence – 13 years – would have to wait about 15 months before applying.

Those convicted can complain to Spain’s constitutional court and then put their case before the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

The Spanish government has the power to issue pardons if they are requested and if the person convicted shows repentance for their crime. However, such a move would have profound political consequences.

Opponents of Spain’s acting prime minister, the socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, would accused him of bowing before the separatists were his government to even consider a pardon. Sam Jones

He said the government would work to guarantee public order in the coming days. A large number of officers descended on Barcelona airport and the city’s Sants railway station and at Girona’s main railway station.

Thousands fill Barcelona’s streets in protest over prison terms for Catalan separatist leaders on Monday.
Thousands fill Barcelona’s streets in protest over prison terms for Catalan separatist leaders on Monday. Photograph: Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

The Catalan president, Quim Torra, urged an amnesty for those convicted but said the sentences would not deflect his administration from pressing on with its quest for independence. “Repression will never triumph over dialogue, democracy and self-determination,” he said.

Torra also called for meetings with the central government, adding: “We have always been prepared to talk and discuss this political conflict, which, now more than ever, requires a political solution.”

Spain’s education minister, Isabel Celaá, who also acts as the government’s spokeswoman, called for calm and renewed dialogue– but stressed that the court’s decision had to be respected.

She said the acting government had tools at it disposal to deal with disobedience and unrest– including article 155 of the constitution, which the previous government used to assume direct control of Catalonia two years ago – but that it would prefer a return to the negotiating table.

Celaá told the Guardian that she hoped moderation would prevail: “There are some groups who won’t listen to a rational message at the moment, but daydreaming won’t lead us anywhere except to a place it’ll be harder to return from.

“There’s no alternative to dialogue in accordance with the law between the representatives of public authorities … There needs to be democratic resolve to respect judicial decisions so that we can open a new chapter of coexistence.”

The trial centred on a referendum held on 1 October 2017 in defiance of the government at the time, under the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and of the country’s constitution, which is founded on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Also scrutinised were the events of 20 September 2017, when police raided Catalan regional government offices and arrested 14 senior officials in an attempt to head off the vote. The raids brought thousands of Catalans out to protest. Guardia Civil officers became trapped inside the buildings they were searching and three of their vehicles were vandalised.

The defendants have already said they will appeal to the European court of human rights.

A spokeswoman for the European commission said it respected the decisions of the Spanish judiciary. “Our position on this is well known and has not changed,” she said. “This is, and remains, an internal matter for Spain, which has to be dealt with in line with its constitutional order.”


Sam Jones in Madrid and Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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