Independence leaders walk free following Spain’s pardons after 3.5 years in prison
Nine politicians and activists had been found guilty of sedition for leading Catalonia’s referendum push in 2017
Nine independence leaders in Catalonia walked free from prison on Wednesday after the Spanish government pardoned their remaining sentence invoking the need to foster social reconciliation after years of political division.
The nine politicians and activists spent around 3.5 years behind bars, including a lengthy pre-trial detention. They were found guilty of sedition for leading Catalonia’s referendum push and attempt to declare independence from Spain in the fall of 2017.
While pardons fall short of the independence movement’s demands for a general amnesty and a self-determination referendum, the Catalan government has welcomed them as a measure that will help ease the pain caused by the "unfair" sentencing.
The nine leaders left the penitentiary centers of Lledoners, Puig de les Basses, and Wad-Ras on Wednesday at noon, having spent up to 1,346 days in prison, out of their sentences ranging from 9 to 13 years.
"The only reason why we political prisoners are free is that Spain couldn’t keep us any longer in prison"
Jordi Cuixart · President of Òmnium Cultural
Former parliament speaker Carme Forcadell became the first leader to exit prison, telling the crowd that awaited her freedom that "happiness will only be complete when repression ends" and exiled politicians like former president Carles Puigdemont can return to Catalonia.
"Prison didn’t break us; on the contrary, it strengthened our convictions," said former Catalan vice president and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, who was handed down the harshest sentence by the Supreme Court.
The secretary-general of Junts per Catalunya Jordi Sànchez stressed that pro-independence leaders "won't be silenced by these pardons" and will continue to push ahead to achieve their goals.
Jordi Cuixart, a pro-independence activist and president of the Òmnium Cultural organization, thanked his supporters for standing by him throughout his imprisonment. "The only reason why we political prisoners are free is that Spain couldn’t keep us any longer in prison — and they couldn’t due to pressure from Europe, and also pressure from Catalans," he said.
The pardons were greenlighted by the Spanish government on Tuesday, with the Socialist president Pedro Sánchez defending the "public utility" of the measure in the face of heated criticism from opposition right-wing parties.
"These pardons directly benefit nine people, but the Spanish government is thinking of the hundreds of thousands of Catalans who have sympathy for those in prison," he said in a televised address on Tuesday.
Sánchez will hold his first meeting with Catalonia's newly elected president, Pere Aragonès, in the Spanish government headquarters on June 29, as confirmed by cabinet sources on Wednesday, who said that the imprisonment of Catalan leaders is "no longer an obstacle" for dialogue.
The nine leaders include former members of the Catalan government, the former speaker of the parliament, and two activists who led pro-independence protests against Spain’s attempts to dismantle preparations for the unauthorized referendum in 2017.
Catalan independence has been one of the most polarizing issues in Spanish politics over the past decade, with the territorial dispute reaching a tipping point when the Catalan government called a referendum deemed as illegal. Spain responded by sending riot police to seize ballot boxes, leaving hundreds injured, and eventually sacked the regional government and imposed direct rule from Madrid.
🔴 "Prison didn’t break us; on the contrary, it strengthened our convictions," says former Catalan vice president and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras— Catalan News (@catalannews) June 23, 2021
Sentenced to 13 years in jail, he was the pro-independence leader who faced the harshest verdict pic.twitter.com/SyJvDJD4Pk
Pardons are partial, meaning that the nine leaders are still forbidden to run for public office until their sentences are fully completed. The measure is also conditional on them not being convicted of new criminal offenses in the coming years.
Concerns by human rights organizations
The imprisonment of Catalan leaders has long raised concerns among human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.
The Council of Europe joined calls for their freedom on Monday, when a majority of 70 to 28 in its parliamentary assembly voted to approve a report calling the convictions "disproportionate."