Catalan leaders exit prison on regained leave permits as election campaigns begin
Prison privileges could be stripped by Supreme Court again, as it happened last year
Eight of the jailed Catalan independence leaders have left prison on Friday after recovering the penitentiary privileges that allow for weekday and weekend leaves that had been struck down by Spain’s Supreme Court two months ago.
Yet, the public prosecutor could position itself against allowing them to have these permits that were greenlighted by the Catalan government, which is in charge of prisons, leading magistrates to strip them of them once again. For now, the politicians and activists behind bars will only have to spend Monday to Thursday night in prison.
As the February 14 election campaign officially kicked off on Thursday night, the jailed leaders will be able to participate in political rallies alongside their pro-independence Esquerra Republicana and Junts per Catalunya party colleagues.
Former minister Dolors Bassa was the first politician to leave her jail on Friday at 8:45 am. The seven male inmates—Oriol Junqueras, Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Quim Forn, Jordi Sànchez, and Jordi Cuixart—left Lledoners prison around 10:30 am.
Carme Forcadell, the parliament speaker at the time of the 2017 referendum, was given the same permission on Saturday, when she left Barcelona's Wad Ras correctional center and met outside Junqueras for first time since 2019.
Sentenced for their role in the 2017 push to separate from Spain, eight politicians and activists have been granted the low category 'semi-freedom' status by the Catalan government.
This comes nearly two months after the Supreme Court revoked these privileges, raising the possibility of this occurring once again.
The 'semi-freedom' status is the most lenient category for inmates as it only requires them to sleep in prison from Monday to Thursday while allowing them to leave the penitentiary facility to go to work during the day and spend weekends at home.
With prison sentences ranging from 9 to 13 years for sedition, most of the jailed independence leaders have already spent at least three years behind bars and all will have completed a quarter of their sentences within the next two weeks.
Òmnium Cultural defends the "repressed"
Òmnium Cultural, the civic organization of which Jordi Cuixart is president, held an event in the center of Barcelona without any members of the public invited due to the pandemic.
At the event, speakers defended fundamental rights and culture. During Cuixart's speech, he urged voters to "fill the ballots" with pro-independence votes and criticized the "operation" of the Spanish state to hold the vote on February 14 despite Covid-19 concerns.
Various people introduced themselves at the event and outlined the various crimes they are accused of and face upcoming trials for. The civic group says that there are around 3,000 of these "repressed" people across Catalonia. Most of the invitees then held up banners in defense of an amnesty for the jailed independence leaders.
Bassa's first words
"I am happy, but this is not freedom," were Bassa's first words to the press that awaited her departure outside the prison walls. She added that it is all "down to the Socialist government's public prosecutor" to decide whether these privileges can be kept.
Bassa also referred to the "imposed" election campaign after a court provisionally denied postponing the vote to avoid having it coincide with the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The former labor minister also encouraged the public to vote for pro-independence parties.
Lledoners prisoners urge electorate to vote
A crowd of journalists also stood outside Lledoners prison to witness the seven jailed pro-independence inmates leaving on Friday morning. And like Bassa, many of them called on Catalans to vote in two weeks' time.
"We need to head to the polls on February 14," said Jordi Sànchez, "because we must express the will of the majority in the country to be free."
"Yesterday marked 1,200 days since I first entered prison, so don’t tell me that we don’t deserve to leave permits while completing our sentences," he added, arguing that their prison conditions should not be questioned.
Former vice president Oriol Junqueras, in turn, referred to the Covid-19 crisis. "We have a country to lift up, a pandemic to overcome, and an economy to recover," the ERC politician said, also expressing his support for his "colleagues that suffer repression and are in exile."
Meanwhile, Josep Rull and Raül Romeva seemed certain the public prosecutor will soon appeal their low-category status, as did Jordi Turull: "We all know how they act."
Unionist parties criticize low category status
Inés Arrimadas, leader of Ciudadanos in the Spanish congress, fired a warning shot about the jailed independence leaders gaining more freedom under an ERC presidency. “If Esquerra stays in power, [the jailed independence leaders] will keep their privileges and the Spanish government will pardon them,” she said.
Carlos Carrizosa, the party’s candidate for president in Catalonia, echoed the same sentiments. “[ERC] will continue to do the same, worrying about the fate of ten people and not 7.5 million Catalans."
Alejandro Fernández of People's Party was suspicious about the timing of the prison privileges being granted. “It is too much of a coincidence that [the jailed independence leaders] were granted leave permits coinciding with the beginning of the election campaign period.”