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In 'spirit of dialogue', Spain to pardon jailed Catalan separatists

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (pictured) said his government will pardon the nine jailed leaders of Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence bid today (22 June), saying that seeking reconciliation with the region was in the public interest, writes Joan Faus.

But as Sanchez spoke of hopes for "a spirit of dialogue and concord", separatist protesters in Barcelona clamoured for a new referendum on independence and opposition parties in Madrid threatened to challenge the pardons in court.

"To reach an agreement, someone must make the first step. The Spanish government will make that first step now," Sanchez told an event in the Catalan capital attended by about 300 members of Catalan civil society but boycotted by its pro-independence government.

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Opinion polls indicate that close to half of Catalonia's population want independence from Spain.

"Catalonia, Catalans we love you," Sanchez said in Catalan at the end of his speech in Barcelona's opera house.

But the move could be unpopular and risky.

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Polls suggest about 60% of Spaniards are against freeing the politicians and activists. Opposition parties have said they will seek to reverse the pardons.

"Appeasement is not an option, it is only a postponement that grants new strength to the threat," conservative People's Party leader Pablo Casado said after Sanchez's announcement.

Government sources said Sanchez is betting he can use an economic recovery and a successful COVID-19 vaccination programme to ride out the ensuing tide of unpopularity and repair any collateral damage before national elections due in 2023.

His ultimate goal that may define his legacy is to weaken the independence push and resolve Spain's biggest political crisis in decades.

Protesters shout slogans next to a damaged Spanish Civil Guard patrol car  outside the Catalan region's economy ministry building during a raid by Spanish police on government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, early September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca
Catalan separatist activist protests during Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's meeting regarding plans to issue pardons to a dozen Catalan separatist leaders, at Gran Teatre del Liceu, in Barcelona, Spain, June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Spain's Supreme Court in 2019 sentenced the nine Catalan leaders for their role in an unauthorised independence referendum and a short-lived declaration of independence. Madrid responded at the time by imposing direct control over the region for seven months in 2017-2018.

They include Oriol Junqueras, the deputy head of Catalonia's government during the 2017 referendum, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison, and Raul Romeva, sentenced to 12 years for his role as Catalonia's foreign affairs chief.

"We don't expect that those seeking independence will change their ideals, but we expect (they) understand there is no path outside the law," Sanchez said.

Outside, several hundred separatists protested demanding a full amnesty, and one member of the audience interrupted Sanchez for a few seconds shouting "Independence".

"Pardons are a small thing, the truth is that they've taken our freedom of speech at all levels, we have our legitimate government in prison or in exile, and this is very serious in a democracy," said Quima Albalate, 61, one of the protesters.

Another called the pardons "a farce".

The cabinet is due to rubber-stamp the pardons at its meeting today, which should lead to the separatists’ release from jail a few days later.

Sanchez aims to kick-start negotiations between the central and regional government.

Catalonia's separatist head of government Pere Aragones said the pardons were a welcome first step to start a dialogue but considered them insufficient, vowing to push for a new, authorised referendum.

“The Spanish government corrects an unfair ruling by the Supreme Court,” he told reporters, saying that voting is not a crime.

The Greens/EFA welcome the decision, which they say comes after a "disproportionate judicial sentence and almost four years of unfair imprisonment". Ska Keller and Philippe Lamberts, Greens/EFA Group presidents, said: "We strongly support the decision taken by the progressive government of Spain. These pardons should be the first step towards a new stage of dialogue and negotiations. We encourage the Spanish and Catalan governments to seize this important political moment to move towards the political solution that we have always asked for. A political solution based on justice and democracy. The established dialogue table is a good opportunity to move towards this direction."

Catalonia

Pardons not a step towards referendum, Spain warns Catalan separatists

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Catalan leader Jordi Cuixart holds a banner in front of the Lledoners prison after the Spanish government announced a pardon for those who participated in Catalonia's failed 2017 independence bid, Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, near Barcelona, Spain, June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Spain's government said on Wednesday (23 June) that pardons granted to nine jailed Catalan separatists leaders did not mean it was prepared to discuss a referendum on independence for the region, write Inti Landauro and Cristina Galan, Reuters.

The Supreme Court authorised the release of the nine politicians and activists after the cabinet approved the clemency measure in a gesture it hopes will foster dialogue to keep the region part of Spain. Read more.

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The nine were expected to leave prison later on Wednesday.

They were sentenced in 2019 to between nine and 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds, after an unauthorised referendum on a breakaway that led to a short-lived declaration of independence and Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

The pardons are conditional, and a ban on the leaders holding public office remains in place.

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"It is not just a question that it is unconstitutional, it is that we can't keep fracturing the Catalan society," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament, answering calls from separatist legislators for another vote authorized by Madrid.

Meanwhile, conservative opposition parties have renewed their calls for Sanchez to resign over the pardons, arguing that the move undermines Spain's unity.

Opinion polls show just about half of Catalonia's population favours splitting from Spain.

The government also ruled out a blanket amnesty for around 3,000 people with legal cases related to the 2017 referendum, which would also include politicians who fled Spain such as former Catalan regional government leader Carles Puigdemont.

"There won't be amnesty, there won't be self-rule, what there will be is dialogue and politics," said Regional Policy Minister Miquel Iceta.

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo said Puigdemont remained a fugitive sought by the courts.

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Catalan MEPs lose immunity after secret European Parliament vote

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Clara Ponsati, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin are wanted by Spain for their part in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum

The European Parliament has voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of three Catalan MEPs wanted by Spain over the 2017 independence push. Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his ex-ministers Clara Ponsati and Toni Comin are exiled in Brussels, and Madrid could now reactivate European arrest warrants which have so far been refused by Belgium, writes Greg Russell @National_Greg.

In a secret ballot held last night but only revealed this morning, more than 400 MEPs voted to lift their immunity, almost 250 against and more than 40 MEPs abstained.

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Puigdemont is expected to raise the issue at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after a report from the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee recommending the removal of their immunity was leaked to the media.

This is the third time the Spanish Supreme Court has tried have them extradited, after previous attempts failed in Scotland, Belgium and Germany.

Losing their immunity will not affect their status as MEPs, which they will retain until they are barred from office by a conviction.

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Aamer Anwar, lawyer for Ms Ponsati, tweeted: “Shameful vote by @Europarl_EN giving into Spain to lift immunity of MEPs @ClaraPonsati @toni_comin @KRLS Who face extradition & political persecution for exercising the democratic will of the Catalan people-The legal battle goes on”

The Spanish government immediately welcomed the decision by the European Union’s legislature as a victory for the rule of law and against those who sought to break the north-eastern region away from the rest of Spain.

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Catalan separatists increase majority, dialogue with Madrid in sight

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Separatist parties won enough seats on Sunday in Catalonia’s regional parliament to strengthen their majority, although a strong showing for the local branch of Spain’s ruling Socialists pointed to a dialogue, rather than breakup, with Madrid, write and
Candidates vote in Catalonia regional election

With over 99% of ballots counted, separatists won 50.9% of the vote, surpassing the 50% threshold for the first time. The most likely scenario was for the two main separatist parties to extend their coalition government.

The final outcome is unlikely, however, to lead to any repeat of the chaotic, short-lived declaration of independence from Spain that took place in 2017. Tensions have ebbed and most voters were more concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic than independence.

Low turnout of 53% amid the pandemic, down from 79% in the previous election in 2017, may have favoured separatist parties, whose supporters were more mobilised.

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Election monitors swapped face masks for full-body protective suits during the final hour of voting, “the zombie hour”, which was reserved for people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Other precautions during the day included temperatures taken on arrival, hand gel and separate entries and exits.

Leftist separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) said it would lead the regional government and seek the support of other parties for a referendum on independence.

“The country starts a new era with (separatists) surpassing 50% of the vote for the first time. ... We have an immense strength to achieve a referendum and the Catalan republic,” said acting regional chief Pere Aragones, who led his party’s slate of candidates.

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He urged Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to enter into talks to agree on a referendum.

But the fragmented vote, which saw the Socialists win the highest percentage of votes, 23%, and the same number of seats as ERC - 33 in the in the 135-seat assembly - means they will also try to form a government.

Socialist candidate Salvador Illa, who until recently led Spain’s coronavirus response as health minister, argued there was a broad call in Catalonia for reconciliation after years of separatism and said he would try to seek a majority in parliament.

That would require an unlikely alliance, however, with other parties.

The centre-right pro-independence Junts won an estimated 32 seats, while far-left separatist party CUP got nine. Both those parties are considered key to achieving another separatist coalition government.

Spanish nationalist far-right party Vox won 11 seats in Catalonia’s parliament for the first time, ahead of the People’s Party, the main Spanish conservative party, and the centre-right Ciudadanos. Vox is already the third-largest party in Spain’s national parliament.

But with ERC seen getting more lawmakers than Junts this time, that could boost the stability of Spain’s central government.

The result could be seen as good news for Sanchez as his Socialist party won almost double the 17 seats it got in 2017.

ERC has provided key votes to the Socialists in the Spanish parliament in exchange for talks on the Catalan political conflict.

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