From politics to prison: former minister's new life in jail

Catalan News goes to Lledoners prison to visit Raül Romeva, who is serving 12 years for his role in the 2017 independence bid

Raül Romeva, on his first appearance at a public event after leaving Estremera prison, at a rally in Valls, December 6, 2017 (Gemma Sánchez)
Raül Romeva, on his first appearance at a public event after leaving Estremera prison, at a rally in Valls, December 6, 2017 (Gemma Sánchez) / Albert Segura/Laura Pous/Neil Stokes

Albert Segura/Laura Pous/Neil Stokes | Barcelona

February 9, 2020 10:35 AM

Passing through a series of metal gates that slam shut behind you, one after another, as you enter a prison is even as a visitor beyond the expectations of most of us. And it is just about unthinkable when the inmate greeting you from behind a glass divide is a former government minister.

Dressed in a tracksuit bearing the logo of the Club Natació Sabadell swimming club, Raül Romeva jokes that he could have been an Olympic contender, but instead chose to study, and now years later, instead of talking about his feats in the pool, he finds himself serving 12 years in Lledoners prison for his role as a minister in the 2017 independence bid.

And he is not the only one. Two booths down sits Joaquim Forn, the interior minister in the Carles Puigdemont government that organized the push for independence in 2017, and another of the nine former officials and activists convicted for sedition by Spain's Supreme Court in October last year and sentenced to jail terms of between nine and 13 years.

"We tried," says Romeva about the failed attempt to turn Catalonia into an independent republic, and he now admits: "I would do a lot of things differently." Yet, the former foreign minister is not interested in focusing on errors, because it is something that he says "stigmatizes, paralyzes and demoralizes."

More than two years since the independence referendum, Romeva thinks that being right about something is not always enough. "What's the use in being right, if it's not acknowledged? Our only strength is in the people. There needs to be many more of us," says the former minister, who adds: "We must fit our expectations to the reality."

Moving forward through sport and learning

Far from the meeting rooms and TV studios of politics, in jail Romeva has turned to the other great love of his life: sport. As well as coaching in the Lledoners sports center, he is studying a PhD on sports in prison and rehabilitation: "Talking about learning allows for correcting and motivating oneself and moving forward," he says.

Undesirable though his situation is, Romeva looks far from weakened by almost two years in prison. Still physically fit and strong, he also retains his desire to make a contribution, a factor in his choice of PhD, while before the interview he had been with a group of youngsters visiting the prison as part of a program against sexist abuse.

Also intact is Romeva's trust in the political beliefs that have led to him being locked up, and he insists that the process towards independence "is irreversible." However, he is also keen to warn that "generating expectations that are too high leads to great frustration, and is a great danger, because it is demoralizing."

Cautiously optimistic about the political future

He is optimistic, though cautiously so, for example seeing the talks agreed between the Catalan and Spanish governments as a "necessary step, although not enough in itself." Nevertheless, "it has to be tried. If it doesn't work out, at least we will have tried and we'll have more arguments to try other things," he says.

Romeva also points to the legal victories in European courts, insisting that "Oriol [Junqueras] has already won the battle," in reference to the EU Court of Justice recognizing his jailed party leader's immunity as an MEP elect, while he also thinks the European Court of Human Rights will one day overturn the sentences handed to the jailed leaders.

"That will be some time in the future, and we'll have spent quite a few years in prison, which was their [the Spanish authorities] objective. They did not want justice, but to make it look as if justice was being done by convicting and imprisoning us. They know it and we know it, and everyone knows it," he concludes.