Spain to overhaul sedition law used to jail Catalan independence leaders

Socialist-led coalition to rename offence ‘aggravated public disorder’ and reduce maximum sentence to five years

Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government has announced plans to overhaul the archaic sedition law that was used to prosecute the Catalan leaders who tried to secede from the rest of the country after the illegal and unilateral referendum held five years ago.

Under the Spanish penal code, the offence of sedition – which dates back to 1822 – is defined as “rising up publicly and tumultuously to prevent, through force or beyond legal means, the application of the law”. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

In October 2019, nine Catalan independence leaders involved in the failed push for regional independence were jailed for nine to 13 years after being found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds but acquitted of the most serious charge of violent rebellion.

On Thursday night, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told LaSexta TV his administration would bring the initiative before parliament on Friday, calling it “a step forward” and something that would help to “defuse” the situation in Catalonia.

“We’re going to present a legislative initiative to reform the crime of sedition and replace it with an offence comparable to what they have in other European democracies such as Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland,” he said.

Sánchez said the offence would be renamed “aggravated public disorder” and would carry a maximum prison sentence of five years rather than 15 to bring it in line with the penalties for equivalent offences in other European democracies.

However, the prime minister stressed he would not entertain the Catalan independence movement’s demands for an amnesty for those who had tried to break from Spain in the autumn of 2017.

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, speaks at the Spanish parliament in Madrid.
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez: ‘The main task of any leader is to build coexistence – and we are building co-existence.’ Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

The move comes 18 months after Sánchez’s government took the controversial step of pardoning the nine jailed leaders to help usher in a new “era of dialogue and understanding”.

The latest proposal was welcomed by Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Pere Aragonès, but swiftly condemned by the opposition conservative People’s party (PP). Aragonès said getting rid of the offence of sedition would be “an indispensable step” towards “dejudicialising” efforts to find a solution to the so-called Catalan question.

But the PP accused Sánchez of caving to the demands of Aragonès’s pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, on which Sánchez’s minority government relies for support in congress.

“The prime minister is doing exactly the opposite of what he said he would, with one sole objective: staying in power no matter what the cost – even if it means weakening the state,” said the PP spokesperson Cuca Gamarra.

Sánchez dismissed such criticisms, saying his government had worked hard to calm the tense Catalan relations that it had inherited from the PP government of Mariano Rajoy.

“I’m very clear that the main task of any leader is to build coexistence – and we are building coexistence,” he told LaSexta. “If viewers don’t think that’s the case, let them take a walk around Catalonia over the next few days and compare how Catalonia is now with how it was then.”

However, not all those in favour of Catalan independence rejoiced at the news. The former regional president Carles Puigdemont, who remains in Belgium after fleeing Spain to avoid arrest over his role in masterminding the referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence – and who is still wanted on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds – said the proposal was little more than a publicity stunt.

In remarks that appeared to be directed at Aragonès – whose ERC now governs Catalonia as a minority after a bitter falling out its erstwhile coalition partners in Puigdemont’s own Together for Catalonia party – the former regional leader said: “Some are celebrating it and selling it as if it were the repeal of the offence. But it’s not the same. The offence isn’t being repealed: they’ve changed its name and announced a reduction in the sentence.”

It remains unclear what exactly the new proposal might mean for those who were jailed and then pardoned for the offence of sedition, or for those such as Puigdemont who fled and have yet to face trial.

Although the nine people convicted of sedition were pardoned, the pardon applied only to the jail sentence and not to the ban on holding public office they were handed at the same time.

According to a draft of the proposed changes obtained by ElDiario.es, those convicted of aggravated public disorder could be given prison sentences of between three and five years and banned from holding office for the same period of time. Those convicted of the offence while in public office could be given bans of six to eight years.

Five years after it plunged Spain into crisis, the Catalan independence movement has stalled and it is deeply divided. According to the latest poll from the regional government’s Centre for Opinion Studies, 50% of Catalans oppose independence, while 42% are in favour. At the height of the independence push five years ago, 48.7% of Catalans supported independence, while 43.6% did not.

Contributor

Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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