Last week nine leaders of the Catalan Independence movement were released from prison after serving nearly four years for holding an illegal referendum and making a declaration of independence, which their President then suspended after less than a minute.
These nine leaders were tried and convicted of sedition and rebellion and sentenced to between nine and 13 years imprisonment.
This month, controversially, after originally supporting the then government of the Partido Popular in 2017 who accused the leaders of mounting a coupe against the state, the Sanchez government has made a massive U-turn and agreed to pardon them.
The nine leaders were released last week after nearly four years in prison, two years without trial. The pardon has put an end to a four year stand-off and opened the door to a negotiated agreement between the regional government of Cataluña and central government.
All three of the right wing opposition parties rigorously oppose the pardons and the Partido Popular (PP) has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn them. However, this seems unlikely to happen as Congress voted a majority in favour and, even in today´s Spain, it would be difficult to believe the judiciary could overrule the voice of democracy.
The PP´s main argument against the pardons appears to be the “humiliation of the Government,” and the lack of remorse shown by the freed politicians.
(The lack of remorse is a strange argument to use against a pardon as the most famous man pardoned was Tejero who was imprisoned after hijacking the Congress at gunpoint and then pardoned despite declaring himself an unrepentant disciple of Franco).
The Sanchez Government clearly doesn´t feel humiliated but rather buoyed by the support it has received from the church, business leaders, the EU and the majority of its own party among others.
Maybe it is the PP which feels humiliated. After all their answer to the Catalan´s government´s decision to call a referendum was to announce it was illegal. They were supported by the courts which also ruled that it would be illegal. However, the biggest blunder the PP made was to swear in public over and over again that the referendum would never take place, as despite all their efforts to the contrary, it did!
The PP Government employed all their resources to hijack and confiscate the material of the referendum, including the ballot boxes, and intervened in the postal service to ensure voting papers couldn´t arrive at their destinations.
Then they sent in thousands of Guardia Civil and national police, who were unwelcome guests as anyone who knows anything about the history of Cataluña will know, and because Cataluña has its own police force (the Mossos de Escuadra), who were declared partisan and complicit by the PP Government.
Many hotels and bed and breakfasts refused to take in people who they considered were an occupying force and thousands of the officers were billeted on navy boats in the harbour, cramped and with no facilities.
By now, understandably, temperatures were running pretty high on both sides. The Mossos felt undermined. The Guardia Civil and National Police, tired and dishevelled, in inadequate accommodation, were resentful. The Catalan Government (the Generalidad), whose salaries had been frozen at this stage, steamed ahead with their plans for the referendum of October 1.
 The Government of the PP continued to proclaim the referendum would never happen.
The last straw for the people of Cataluña was when 14 high serving members of the Catalan Government were arrested and the regional departments of Economy, Exterior, Work and Government were searched by judicial order.
Thousands turned out in public protests against this repression by the Spanish state and demanded their right to vote.
The Mossos de Escuadra acted as intermediaries between the peaceful protesters and the Guardia Civil, an act which later resulted in their highest ranking officer being removed from office for being “complicit”. He was finally reinstated after the charges against him were shown to be baseless.
The only “violence” (a requisite for a charge of sedition) during this pacific protest, widely reported in the international and national press, was when some protesters climbed on top of a police car.
This then was the climate on October 1, 2017 when the “referendum” on Catalan independence took place.
At 8am when the Mossos and the police tried to stop the electoral colleges opening they discovered a substantial number of people had camped out in the buildings to foil the attempts to close them.
The violent scenes that followed spread through the media all over the world. The riot police advanced. The people stood, or sat, united. The protesters could not prevent the police seizing the ballot boxes and violently removing them from the polling stations. The PP Government´s claims of “proportionality” hardly match the terrible images of peaceful protesters being beaten and physically dragged away, some by the hair, by the police.
During the afternoon the queues of people who wanted to vote grew and grew and an appeal went out for volunteers to remain at the polling stations to protect the ballot boxes so the votes could be counted. They stayed.
This was no normal voting day and there were certainly countless irregularities. The result in favour of independence clearly lacked legal validity. But the Catalans were defiant in defence of their right to decide, their right to vote.
In the political social panorama of Cataluña there were many people who did not support the illegal referendum and probably more who did not and still do not support independence. However, many were profoundly shocked by the scenes they witnessed on the television that day and were totally opposed to the Catalan political leaders being charged and imprisoned for defending their right to vote. This is one element of the Catalan society that Sanchez hopes to win back by granting the pardons.
The consequences of this rebellion were rapid and direct, although it became clear afterwards that the leaders of the Independents in Cataluña had hoped until the very last minute that Rajoy, President of the PP Government, would agree to talks. He didn’t. He applied Article 155 of the Constitution, the “Republic” was suspended, and central government took control of governing in Cataluña.
The night of the referendum the Catalan Parliament declared the independence of Cataluña and then the President himself suspended it 56 minutes later. Cataluña held its breath as they waited for their President to declare Catalan independence from the balcony of the Generalidad in a final act of defiance. He didn´t but fled into exile instead.
His coalition partners were not so lucky. They spent the next two years in prison awaiting trial and, after being found guilty of sedition and rebellion, were given hefty sentences.
Justifying his pardon for the leaders of the Catalan independents President Sanchez has referred to the “transition” when all parties in Spain signed an agreement in the spirit of concord and harmony to pave the way for democracy following the death of Franco. Where is that spirit now? He asked the members of the opposition parties in Congress. “Where is that spirit of the transition for dialogue, concessions and negotiations?
During the last four years while the Parliament in Cataluña has managed little else other than argue over how to secure their independence, hundreds of businesses and banks have moved their headquarters out of Cataluña. The continuing conflict and the prickly issue of the “political prisoners” plus the ex-President´s “Government in exile” in Brussels, has more or less brought government to a standstill in the region.
Many Catalans who do not support a republic are actively opposed to their political leaders being imprisoned for holding the referendum.
By issuing the pardon Sanchez is aiming for much more than “talks” with the newly elected government of independents of Cataluña. He is hoping to stem the outward flow of businesses from Cataluña and encourage those who have left to return.
He is also hoping to weaken the Independence movement by taking away one of their main political objectives: freeing their political leaders, and thus remove the principal motive for voters, who are not in favour of the republic, to vote for independence as a protest against the incarcerations.
The two sides are far apart but they are talking.
“We don´t expect the Independents to change their minds,” says Sanchez, “and we are not going to change ours. There will be no referendum in Cataluña.”
The leaders of the independence movement are defiant but not humiliated.
President Sanchez has made an audacious decision in an effort to find an agreement, to boost the Catalan economy, and win back estranged voters. He knows might fail but he is not humiliated.
So who is humiliated? I would suggest the only people who are humiliated are the same party who tried to stop the Catalans voting and failed! There’s the rub!!!

Photo: Marta Perez

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