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 bid 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 Sanchez 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 co-existence and harmony set out in the Spanish constitution,” he said.
However, while Sanchez 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 spokesman 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 Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart.
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.”
Mr Sanchez 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 co-existence and harmony between people who are very far apart politically – but who can’t ignore each other,” said Mr Sanchez.
“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 Sanchez 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 per cent of Spaniards opposed clemency, while 29.5 per cent were in favour. But another poll, published two week later, showed support for the measure rising, with 44.2 per cent of those surveyed backing the pardons against the 55.7 per cent who disagree with them.
The ERC – which heads the Catalan regional government – has given a lukewarm response to the pardons. But Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president who organised the failed independence drive, has dismissed Mr Sanchez’s actions as “showboating” and said they “fooled no one”.
Mr 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 October 1st 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 Mr Puigdemont and his government, and call a snap regional election for December 2017.
Mr 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 Mr 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”. –Guardian