Spain pardons nine Catalan independence leaders as PM Sánchez seeks to calm tensions

The Spanish government has pardoned nine Catalan independence leaders jailed for their roles in a failed separatist bid in 2017 — taking the first steps in what Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez hopes is the long road toward reconciliation.

The Spanish Cabinet approved the decision at a meeting Tuesday. Sánchez had announced the move during a visit to Barcelona Monday, where he delivered a speech outlining his roadmap for Catalonia.

“The pandemic has reminded us that we need one another,” he said, speaking at the Liceu Theatre. “Almost always to reach an agreement, someone has to take the first step. We are going to rebuild social harmony from respect and regard. We cannot start from scratch, but we can start again. We love you Catalonia.”

“I am convinced that taking nine people from prison, who represent thousands of Catalans, is a resounding message of the will for social harmony in Spanish democracy.”

The nine separatist politicians, who were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition, include Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and former deputy regional president of Catalonia. The others are Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull, Dolors Bassa, Carme Forcadell, Joaquim Forn, Josep Rull, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart.

They could leave prison as early as this week, but the pardons can be declared null if the Catalan politicians commit a serious crime within a period of between three and six years, with the latter applying to Junqueras.

For the Catalan separatists, the move was deemed positive but insufficient. The nine jailed politicians are being pardoned but not having their sentences overturned, which would have allowed them to hold to public office again and permitted former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont to return from Belgium without the fear of prosecution. He has lived there since fleeing Spain in the aftermath of the failed separatist bid in the fall of 2017.

“The pardons are a first step to solve the political conflict between Spain and Catalonia, but they are a partial and incomplete solution,” the current Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès, told POLITICO in a statement. He said the Catalan government wanted an “amnesty.”

Romeva, one of those pardoned, tweeted on Tuesday: “Pardoning 9 people will not hide the repression they continue to apply against hundreds of pro-independence activists. We will not give in: amnesty and self-determination!”

A further three Catalan government officials who were found guilty of disobedience and barred from public office for 20 months but not jailed are not subject to pardons because they have already served their sentences. Unlike the nine pardoned politicians, these three are free to run for office again. They are Carles Mundó, Meritxell Borrás and Santi Vila.

The decision comes after months of intense public debate and a demonstration against the plan by tens of thousands of people in Madrid on June 13. The government argues some of the Catalan politicians have already spent three-and-a-half years in prison, including their time in pre-trial custody, and there is support for their release even among Catalans who condemned their involvement in the separatist bid.

In a statement on Tuesday from La Moncloa, the prime minister’s office and residence, Sánchez said the pardons are in line with the spirit of “concord” enshrined in the Spanish Constitution.

“This act of grace does not demand those benefitted by it change their ideas. We don’t expect such a thing,” he said. “A strong democracy such as the Spanish doesn’t ask anybody to give up their ideas, but it requires everybody to defend those ideas within the legal framework and with respect towards everybody’s rights.”

The pardons, which were issued against the advice of Spain’s Supreme Court, send a strong message to Barcelona of Sánchez’s intention to dial down the tension and adopt a more conciliatory tone than his conservative predecessor, but the relationship is far from normalized.

Spanish and Catalan leaders are yet to launch a formal negotiation on how to improve ties, which is expected to include the possibility of an amnesty but will also tackle long-standing issues such as levels of state investment in Catalonia and options for further devolution of powers.

But Sánchez’s decision is also a calibrated move to maintain the stability of his minority government, as the socialist leader needs the support of ERC to govern. The move could still play into the hands of the opposition parties in Madrid, as one poll in May gave the People’s Party (PP) the lead for the first time in the life of this parliament, and suggested the conservative party could rule in coalition with the far-right Vox.

Ciudadanos, PP and Vox, which represent voters from the center to the far right of Spanish politics, were quick to criticize the decision, presenting it as an attack on democracy and the Spanish Constitution.

PP leader Pablo Casado announced Tuesday he plans to appeal the pardons, arguing groups of pro-independence activists reporting to the Catalan regional government carried out research into conservative politicians, including himself, with the intention of attacking them. He claimed this makes him a directly affected party, and therefore entitled to appeal.

Vox has also announced its intention to appeal the pardons and threatened to launch a motion of censure against Sánchez. However, Vox leader Santiago Abascal might struggle to push the motion forward, after failing to oust the prime minister in a vote in October 2020 that was only endorsed by MPs from his own party.

Marina Adami contributed to this article.

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