Spain’s socialist-led government will on Tuesday approve the deeply controversial pardons of the nine Catalan independence leaders who were jailed over their roles in the illegal, failed attempt to secede from the rest of the country in October 2017.
The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has acknowledged that the decision will anger many Spaniards, but insists the act of clemency is the best way to bring the country back together and to help find a political solution to the enduring territorial crisis.
Sánchez finally confirmed the long-anticipated move during a speech in Barcelona on Monday in which he stressed the need for coexistence, magnanimity and a fresh start. The pardons will be formally approved during Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.
The nine – among them six members of Catalonia’s former government who had not fled Spain, plus the speaker of the regional parliament and two influential activists – were convicted of offences including sedition by the supreme court in 2019.
“I do know that there are people who are against the step, and I do understand and respect their reasons,” the prime minister said.
“But those of us who support the pardons also have our reasons – and in those reasons our hopes for the future outweigh the grievances of the past. And when it comes to weighing up political decisions, the future has to matter more than the past.”
Sánchez, who was heckled during the speech, added: “Although we understand why some people oppose it, the government has chosen to open a path to reconciliation; to coming back together. We think these pardons open that path and will give all of us the chance to start again and to do it better this time.”
Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president who remains in Belgium after fleeing Spain to avoid arrest after organising the referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence, dismissed Sánchez’s comments as “show-boating” and said they “fooled no one”.
The pardons remain a bitterly divisive issue. A recent poll for El Mundo found that 61% of those surveyed did not agree with the move, while tens of thousands of people, including the leaders of the three parties on Spain’s right, rallied in Madrid earlier this month to make plain their displeasure.
The pardons have also been opposed by Spain’s supreme court, which imposed jail sentences of between nine and 13 years on the nine, who were among 12 independence leaders and activists tried in 2019; the three others received non-custodial sentences. In a non-binding report the court said the punishments were appropriate, and also noted that those convicted had not shown “the slightest evidence or faintest hint of contrition”.
Sánchez’s political rivals have accused him of abandoning his previous anti-pardon position, and of caving in to the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party (ERC), on whom his minority government depends for support in parliament.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People’s party, also seized on the lack of remorse shown by the nine jailed leaders.
“Sánchez has used a clemency measure to launch a coup against legality, perverting the use of a pardon to grant it, for the first time, to those who have not asked for it, who are not sorry, and who have also threatened to reoffend,” he said.
Confirmation of the move also drew a mixed response from Catalonia’s two biggest pro-independence parties.
The new Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès, who belongs to the ERC, described the pardons as “a first step that needs to be followed by negotiations”, but said they were an “incomplete solution”. Aragonès once again called for an amnesty and for a jointly agreed referendum on the future of Catalonia.
Elsa Artadi, a spokesperson for the hardline Together for Catalonia party founded by Puigdemont, called Sánchez’s speech at Barcelona’s opera house “a farce”, adding: “If he’s got a proposal, let him come to the [Catalan] parliament so we can vote and decide whether it’s a solution or not.”
Despite the recriminations, however, Sánchez’s approach received a boost last week after the head of Spain’s main business lobby, the CEOE, said the pardons “would be welcome if they help get things back to normal”.