Jailed leaders hopeful of ways to shorten sentences – but timings are getting unclear

Pardon or reform of criminal code are considered by Spanish government, but fears of opposition "blackmailing" to avoid it arise

Jailed leader Carme Forcadell entering prison after having been denied 'low category' status as inmate on December 4, 2020 (by Miquel Codolar)
Jailed leader Carme Forcadell entering prison after having been denied 'low category' status as inmate on December 4, 2020 (by Miquel Codolar) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

December 22, 2020 02:22 PM

Oriol Junqueras has to serve his sentence in jail until October 29, 2030, for having organized the 2017 independence referendum – but is hopeful to see it reduced, as are the other eight pro-independence leaders behind bars.

Especially now, after the Supreme Court rejected granting them the milder status as inmates. This rules out them spending the weekends at home, and spending some hours outside the penitentiary working on weekdays.

They have some possible paths which will allow them to leave prison. However, these depend on the Spanish government, but Madrid's readiness to act on the matter is now being put into question.

Amnesty not likely 

The pro-independence camp has found consensus in demanding an amnesty for all those involved in the referendum case, both those imprisoned and those in exile.

Indeed, they have passed a motion in the Catalan parliament asking for Spain's Congress to pass a law of amnesty for "all acts with political intention linked to the democratic struggle for Catalonia's self-determination" since January 1, 2013. They will also present a bill in Congress with the same content on March 15, 2021. 

They also put forward this petition in the talks between the Catalan and Spanish governments in February – but they did not get an affirmative response and it is very unlikely that they do.

This would imply Spain's Congress passing a tailor-made law which also exonerates the exiled leader Carles Puigdemont and those accused in numerous referendum-related cases. 

Reform of sedition crime

More realistic options are a pardon and a reform of a criminal code, both proposed by the Socialist-led executive in Madrid.

Spain's cabinet is working on modifying the crime of sedition, among others, which would force the Supreme Court to rework the sentence. Given that some incarcerated leaders are also facing a conviction for misuse of funds, and without more details on the extent of the reform, it remains to be seen whether the three years they have already served would be enough.

In November, the government said they would move forward with the new legislation before the end of the year. Nonetheless, so far there has been no news on the matter and Spain's justice minister has pulled back from the idea that this will be passed by the end of the year. 

Opposition 'blackmailing' Socialists

What's more, En Comú Podem's leader, Jaume Asens, said on December 9 that the leading opposition People's Party is "blackmailing" the Socialists by saying that they will only accept renovating the judicial top posts if the Catalan leaders are not pardoned. Consensus between the two is needed and this urgent issue is stuck.

Asens also urged the Socialists to have "political will" to execute the sedition crime reform as pledged and suggested that they might deliberately delay any move until after the February 14 Catalan election, because the measure might be unpopular for their targeted unionist voters.

Unidas Podemos, En Comú Podem's ally at a Spanish level, is hoping for an amendment of the crime to add that "violence with weapons" is needed to perpetrate sedition. 

Pardoning still being considered

As for potential pardons, they can exclusively be granted by the Spanish government, which since September is officially "considering" pardon requests for all nine prisoners, made by members of the civil society.

Madrid is waiting for all sides in the referendum trial to have their – non-binding – say before deciding. The public prosecutor flatly rejected pardoning them on December 22 on the grounds that there are no reasons relating to "justice, equity or utility". The same is expected of the Supreme Court. 

In an interview with public broadcaster TV3, Asens accused the magistrates of taking too much time for their report "deliberately," but said that if they sent it shortly, the inmates could be out of jail before the election.

Road to Strasbourg court

All nine are also pending an appeal before the Constitutional Court and in the likely event that it fails, they will take their struggle to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This path is expected to be extremely long – up to five years until a potential favorable ruling, say commentators.

In the meantime

All nine are back to 'medium category' status, which only allows them to request temporary leaves for up to 36 days a year when they have complied with a quarter of their sentences – some already have, while the rest will reach this point in January and February 2021.

Meanwhile, Catalan prison authorities have to assess their prison category again shortly. They did this last July granting them the 'low category' status and this decision must be reviewed every half a year – so in the coming weeks, the legal back and forth between the Catalan government, the prosecutor, several courts, and ultimately, the Supreme Court potentially revoking it again, could be repeated.