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Spain’s Prime Minister Can’t Win When It Comes to Catalonia

Pedro Sánchez’s pardons represent a balanced response to a divisive issue—but both sides have denounced him.

By , a freelance journalist based in Spain.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid on Oct. 21, 2020. Manu Fernandez - Pool/Getty Images

On June 22, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez riled both sides of the Catalan independence debate by issuing pardons to nine jailed secessionists, all of whom are now free. He’s being portrayed as dangerously lenient by the Spanish right and insufficiently lenient by separatists, who demand nothing less than full amnesties for their formerly incarcerated leaders. But in the deafening row over which side is right, one fundamental fact has been forgotten: The sentences were excessive in the first place.

In October 2019, nine leading separatists—including Oriol Junqueras, a former vice president of the region, and Carme Forcadell, ex-president of the Catalan Parliament—were found guilty by Spain’s Supreme Court of sedition and/or misuse of public funds. The crimes were committed in connection with the independence referendum of Oct. 1, 2017, in which 92 percent of the 43 percent of registered voters who turned out opted for secession. For holding the referendum in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court, which outlawed the vote almost a month in advance, the separatists received sentences ranging from nine to 13 years, of which they’d served almost four when the pardons were granted.

Sánchez said that he issued the pardons to foster national harmony and to start a “new era of dialogue” between his government and Catalonia’s pro-independence administration. But as well as causing huge protests in Madrid, the Socialist leader’s decision to release the jailed separatists has been slammed by the conservative People’s Party (PP) and right-wing Vox. These parties point to Sánchez’s reliance on separatist votes in Congress (the Socialist-led coalition lacks a parliamentary majority and requires cross-party support to pass legislation), and they claim that the pardons are politicized and self-serving.

On June 22, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez riled both sides of the Catalan independence debate by issuing pardons to nine jailed secessionists, all of whom are now free. He’s being portrayed as dangerously lenient by the Spanish right and insufficiently lenient by separatists, who demand nothing less than full amnesties for their formerly incarcerated leaders. But in the deafening row over which side is right, one fundamental fact has been forgotten: The sentences were excessive in the first place.

In October 2019, nine leading separatists—including Oriol Junqueras, a former vice president of the region, and Carme Forcadell, ex-president of the Catalan Parliament—were found guilty by Spain’s Supreme Court of sedition and/or misuse of public funds. The crimes were committed in connection with the independence referendum of Oct. 1, 2017, in which 92 percent of the 43 percent of registered voters who turned out opted for secession. For holding the referendum in defiance of Spain’s Constitutional Court, which outlawed the vote almost a month in advance, the separatists received sentences ranging from nine to 13 years, of which they’d served almost four when the pardons were granted.

Sánchez said that he issued the pardons to foster national harmony and to start a “new era of dialogue” between his government and Catalonia’s pro-independence administration. But as well as causing huge protests in Madrid, the Socialist leader’s decision to release the jailed separatists has been slammed by the conservative People’s Party (PP) and right-wing Vox. These parties point to Sánchez’s reliance on separatist votes in Congress (the Socialist-led coalition lacks a parliamentary majority and requires cross-party support to pass legislation), and they claim that the pardons are politicized and self-serving.

Sánchez’s decision to release the jailed separatists has been slammed by the conservative People’s Party and right-wing Vox.

There’s truth to the first point, but that doesn’t make it a compelling objection. If the pardons are political in anything other than an obvious sense—having been granted within the context of a politically charged atmosphere—that’s only because the sentences themselves were heavily politicized when they were handed down, and they put greater strain on an already fraught relationship between the Catalan and Spanish governments.

Protests erupted throughout Catalonia when Spain’s Supreme Court announced the jail terms on Oct. 14, 2019, and Catalonia’s independence movement reacted with fury, claiming that its most prominent figures were being made examples of. It wasn’t just members of the secessionist camp who were shocked, though: Pablo Iglesias, then-leader of the leftist Podemos party, made clear that he did not support Catalan independence, but he still described the sentences as an example of “how not to address political conflicts in a democracy.”

The pardons granted by Sánchez differ from full amnesties in that they don’t expunge the separatists’ crimes from the record and do not cancel their bans from public office, which remain in place for as long as their original sentences. In other words, they effectively mean an early, conditional release from prison, while upholding a more appropriate punishment that’s in line with precedent.

Artur Mas, the secessionist president of Catalonia between 2010 and 2016, arranged a vote on Catalan independence on Nov. 9, 2014, which was declared illegal in advance by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Mas went ahead anyway, after redefining the vote as a “process of citizen participation,” and 81 percent of voters opted to split from Spain, albeit on an estimated turnout of just 42 percent.

In early 2017, he was tried by Catalonia’s Superior Court of Justice, found guilty of civil disobedience, and hit with a 36,500-euro ($43,200) fine and a two-year ban from politics. Mas’s successor Carles Puigdemont, by contrast, fled Spain to avoid arrest in the wake of the 2017 referendum as his colleagues were rounded up and thrown in jail, where they stayed until their trials began almost two years later. Puigdemont remains in voluntary exile in Belgium and was not among the separatists granted pardons on June 22.

If the act of staging an independence referendum—or a “process of citizen participation”—is egregious enough to warrant the crackdown that ensued, then Mas’s case poses tricky questions. Why wasn’t he tried by Spain’s Supreme Court, the country’s highest legal tribunal, rather than a Catalan court? And why is there such a vast discrepancy between his punishment and that handed to the separatists who arranged a repeat referendum in October 2017?

Just weeks before the pardons were announced, the Council of Europe, the European Union’s top human rights organization, called on Spain to reform its legal definition of sedition and rebellion so as to avoid “disproportionate sanctions for non-violent transgressions”—which is exactly what the original sentences were. In the case of the nine separatists sent to prison in October 2019, the pardons issued on June 22 have finally made their punishments fit their crimes.

The reprieves may have curtailed excessive sentences, but in making them, Sánchez does appear to have drastically altered his stance on the Supreme Court’s 2019 decisions. Immediately after the court’s determinations were announced, the Socialist leader promised to “fully comply” with the rulings, which he described as the result of an “exemplary legal process.” But during his announcement of the pardons in Barcelona earlier this month, Sánchez adopted a very different tone: “[T]aking nine people from prison, who represent thousands of Catalans, is a resounding message of the will for social harmony in Spanish democracy,” he said. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the firebrand leader of the PP’s Madrid faction, called Sánchez’s apparent reversal a “betrayal.”

According to the opposition’s well-rehearsed refrain, Sánchez panders to separatists because he needs their votes in Congress, but he’s never given them what they really want (nor is he ever likely to): full amnesties for the released prisoners and a state-approved referendum on secession, like that on Scottish independence permitted by the U.K. government in 2014. Catalonia’s new pro-independence president, Pere Aragones, asked for both again in a meeting with Sánchez on June 29—their first after the separatists were freed—but said afterwards that he’d only been reminded of “how far apart our positions remain.”

The separatists don’t seem to view the pardons as even a minor victory.

It’s mainly for this reason that secessionists have also reacted negatively to the pardons. Puigdemont accused Sánchez of “showboating,” and the Catalan National Assembly (a civic group whose former president, Jordi Sanchez, was one of the released prisoners) called them a “farce.” Surely, though, a farce that results in their ex-leader not serving another five years behind bars is better than no farce at all?

That separatists aren’t expressing boundless gratitude to Sánchez is understandable; what’s more surprising is that they don’t seem to view the pardons as even a minor victory. They have, after all, given freedom to colleagues who otherwise would be facing up to 10 more years in a cell.

Junqueras, who was serving the longest sentence of 13 years, has wasted no time in showing his lack of remorse for the 2017 referendum. In his first post-release interview, on June 28, he stated that his party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, won’t automatically support the Socialists in Congress—which, according to the PP and Vox, is precisely why Sánchez granted the pardons.

Junqueras’s attitude, and that of the secessionists in general, hardly inspires confidence in the right’s favorite theory: that the Republican Left of Catalonia and the Socialists are partners in crime, intent on destroying Spain’s constitutionally protected unity. True, Sánchez is often reliant on the votes of the Catalan party, as well as those of the Basque nationalist party EH Bildu, in passing legislation—but Catalan separatists are as far away now from an independent republic as they were when the Socialist leader came to power in June 2018.

Sánchez’s baseline opposition to Catalan secession might seem impossible to reconcile with the pardons, but in reality it’s not. In releasing the nine politicians and activists, he robbed the independence movement of its most iconic martyrs while blocking their return to politics for several more years. At the same time, he’s reduced the draconian punishments meted out by an overly politicized court.

There’s something in there for both sides of the Catalan independence battle to celebrate, if only they could suspend hostilities for enough time to realize it.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

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