Spanish government pardons nine jailed Catalan leaders

Prime minister says controversial decision represents constitution’s ‘spirit of coexistence and harmony’

Spain’s prime minister has called for a new “era of dialogue and understanding” as his Socialist-led government pardoned nine Catalan independence leaders for their roles in the illegal, failed push for regional secession four years ago that plunged the country into its gravest political crisis in decades.

Announcing the partial, and bitterly controversial, pardons on Tuesday, Pedro Sánchez said the decision had been taken in the interests of national unity and social cohesion.

“The Spanish government has taken this decision because it’s the best one for Catalonia, the best one for Spain, and the one which most closely represents the spirit of coexistence and harmony set out in the Spanish constitution,” he said.

However, while Sánchez said the pardons would mean the release from prison of the nine jailed separatist leaders, he stressed that those convicted would remain banned from public office, and that the pardons would be conditional on their recipients not committing serious crimes over a given period of time.

The beneficiaries of the pardons are: the former regional vice-president, Oriol Junqueras; the former regional government spokesperson, Jordi Turull; the former Catalan foreign affairs minister, Raül Romeva; the former regional territorial minister, Josep Rull; the former employment minister, Dolors Bassa; the former regional interior minister, Joaquim Forn; the former speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, and the two influential civil society leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart.

(Top, left to right) Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull (Bottom, left to right) Jordi Cuixart, Carme Forcadell, Dolors Bassa and Jordi Sànchez.
(Top, left to right) Raül Romeva, Joaquim Forn, Jordi Turull, Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull (Bottom, left to right) Jordi Cuixart, Carme Forcadell, Dolors Bassa and Jordi Sànchez. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

All were found guilty of crimes including sedition and misuse of public funds and sentenced to terms of between nine and 13 years by Spain’s supreme court in October 2019. They were also banned from holding public office for periods matching their prison sentences.

“The pardons directly affect nine people, but the government of Spain is thinking, above all, of the hundreds of thousands of Catalans who support those who are in prison,” said the prime minister.

“We also think of all those in Catalonia and the rest of Spain who did not support their actions but who think they’ve now been punished enough.”

Sánchez pointed out that the pardons had not been granted in return for those convicted recanting their pro-independence beliefs.

“Those jailed were never punished for their ideas but for their actions against democratic legality,” he said. “A strong democracy like Spain’s doesn’t ask anyone to abandon their ideas, but it does require them to exercise them within the limits of the law and with respect towards all Spaniards.”

The prime minister said the time had come for a return to dialogue, negotiations and mutual understanding.

“We are now trying to embark on a new era of dialogue and to offer bridges of coexistence and harmony between people who are very far apart politically – but who can’t ignore each other,” said Sánchez.

“We live together and we have to act together to deal with the same worries and the same problems. I’m convinced that we will come across difficulties on this path, but I think it’s a path well worth trying for Spaniards, for all Catalans, for our children, for our grandchildren, and for society as a whole.”

The prime minister’s decision and emollient words did not go down well with his political rivals, who accuse him of hypocrisy and of selling out to the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party on whom his minority government depends for support in parliament.

“During the [election] debate in 2019, I asked Sánchez several times whether he was going to pardon the prisoners and strike a deal with them,” Pablo Casado, the leader of the conservative People’s party (PP), wrote on Twitter.

“He denied it and promised to make holding illegal referendums a crime … He lied to Spaniards and he will have to answer at the ballot box.” The PP and other opposition parties have already said they plan to appeal against the pardons.

The pardons remain divisive. A poll at the beginning of June found that 61% of Spaniards opposed clemency, while 29.5% were in favour. But another poll, published two weeks later, showed support for the measure rising, with 44.2% of those surveyed backing the pardons against 55.7% who disagreed with them.

The ERC – which heads the Catalan government – has given a lukewarm response to the pardons. The regional president, Pere Aragonès, said that while the decision “lent credibility” to forthcoming negotiations with Sánchez, the time had come for a jointly agreed referendum on Catalan independence – a move repeatedly ruled out by the Spanish government.

Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president who organised the failed independence drive, has dismissed Sánchez’s actions as “showboating” and said they “fooled no one”. His party, Together for Catalonia, said the pardons were “not justice” and were “personal solutions, not collective ones”.

Puigdemont, who remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium, is not eligible for a pardon as efforts to extradite him to Spain have failed, meaning he has not been tried.

His separatist administration triggered the crisis on 1 October 2017, when it went ahead with the illegal referendum, despite repeated warnings from the Spanish government and courts.

Voting was marred by a violent and heavy-handed response from police officers sent into the region by the Spanish government to stop the poll.

Three weeks later, separatist members of the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence, prompting the Spanish government to use the constitution to assume direct control of the region, sack Puigdemont and his government, and call a snap regional election for December 2017.

Puigdemont and other members of his government fled abroad to avoid arrest, but nine independence leaders, including Junqueras, remained behind and were tried for their actions.

The pardons came a day after the Council of Europe, one of Europe’s oldest human rights organisations, passed a non-binding motion calling on Spain to consider dropping extradition proceedings against the Catalan politicians – including Puigdemont.

The motion, from the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly, also asked Madrid to reform its rebellion and sedition laws so that they did not lead to “disproportionate sanctions for non-violent transgressions”. It said detained Catalan politicians should not be required to disown “their deeply held political opinions” in exchange for pardons or better prison regimes, but added they could be “required to undertake to pursue their political objectives without recourse to illegal means”.

The assembly’s recommendations were not well received by the Spanish government. In a statement, the foreign ministry said the calls were “incoherent as they urge the government to stop ongoing judicial and extradition processes, which runs contrary to the separation of powers”.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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