Pardons for jailed Catalan leaders: How did we get here?

9 to 13-year prison sentences for sedition and misuse of funds followed 2017 independence referendum

12 Catalan leaders sit in the dock in Spain's Supreme Court (by ACN)
12 Catalan leaders sit in the dock in Spain's Supreme Court (by ACN) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

June 22, 2021 02:00 PM

Nine Catalan politicians and activists jailed for their roles during the 2017 independence push have been granted pardons by the Spanish government. 

But how did we get here?  

Referendum and declaration of independence 

After a rapid surge in pro-independence sentiment in the early 2010s and efforts by several Catalan governments to persuade Madrid to accept a vote on self-determination, on October 1, 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on independence, in defiance of Spain's Constitutional Court, which had deemed the vote illegal. 

A heavy-handed Spanish police operation resulted in more than 1,000 injuries, according to the Catalan health department, but the ballot went ahead. The result, over 92% of votes in favor of independence on a turnout of 43%, albeit with a unionist boycott, prompted the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to declare independence on October 10, 2017, before immediately suspending it – 17 days later, the parliament passed a declaration of independence which was never officially published or enforced. 

On the same day, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – taking away Catalonia's self-governance and imposing direct rule from Madrid – and called a snap election for the Catalan parliament. 

Investigation and trial 

Spanish prosecutors quickly moved to accuse the organizers of the referendum of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. Some, including Puigdemont, went into exile to avoid prosecution. 

Eventually 12 people were brought to trial in the Spanish Supreme Court: ten senior politicians, including the vice president Oriol Junqueras, parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and eight cabinet members, as well as activists Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, the heads in 2017 of the pro-independence civic groups Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural respectively. 

From February to June 2019, a four-month trial saw debate over the role of Catalan police, the transport of ballot boxes, the use of public funds and whether the conduct and intentions of voters and leaders were violent or peaceful. 

Sentences: 9 to 13 years imprisonment 

Four were found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds: Oriol Junqueras, sentenced to 13 years behind bars, and Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva and Dolors Bassa, each given 12-year sentences.  

Five were found guilty of sedition only: Carme Forcadell, sentenced to 11.5 years, Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull, both sentenced to 10.5 years, and Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, both sentenced to 9 years. 

All nine had been held in provisional detention during the trial, while awaiting sentencing, and for between one and a half and two years prior to the hearings. 

The remaining three – Carles Mundó, Santi Vila and Meritxell Borràs – were each found guilty of disobedience and handed a fine of €60,000. 

The verdicts prompted a week of turmoil in Catalonia as intense protests led to nightly clashes between demonstrators and police. 

Elections and failed attempts to get temporary regular prison leave 

During their time in jail, the prisoners have remained influential figures in the political arena. Before their convictions – which including being barred from office – some of them ran in local, Catalan, Spanish and European elections, but sooner or later were removed from their posts or quit after not being able to carry out their work as normal. 

After the imprisoned officials began to enjoy day leave, in July 2020, the Catalan government – which is responsible for prisons in Catalonia – granted them 'low category' status, which meant them spending only four nights a week behind bars. This was revoked by the Spanish judiciary not once, but twice, after the Catalan administration unsuccessfully attempted it again in early 2021.  

Road to release: Pardon or amnesty? 

Even before the verdicts were delivered, talk had already turned to possible ways out of the political crisis engulfing Catalonia and Spain.  

An amnesty for anyone involved in judicial proceedings related to the referendum was the independence camp's preference, but it would require support in the Spanish Congress. 

Pardons, as we have seen, are in the gift of the Spanish government, based on a law from 1870, but only affect those already sentenced – and not those in exile – causing them to be viewed as a middle-ground solution that makes neither side happy. 

In September 2020, the Spanish government said it would begin considering pardons for jailed leaders, nine months after the request of lawyer Francesc Jufresa, one of many petitions for such a course of action. 

The solicitor general – representing the cabinet – submitted their report on a potential pardon to the Supreme Court in March 2021. They avoided taking a side, unlike the public prosecutor, which sided against releasing the nine imprisoned politicians and activists. 

The Supreme Court eventually published in May 2021 their non-binding decision to oppose the granting of pardons, citing "no evidence of remorse" on the part of the prisoners. 

Nevertheless, Spanish president Pedro Sánchez announced that he would make a decision regarding pardons in accordance with the constitutional values of "concord, dialogue," and "understanding," while rejecting "revenge," in comments that were seen to point towards the granting of presidential pardons. 

Despite protests from Spain's right and far right, the positive mood music from the Spanish government only got louder in the subsequent weeks and was echoed by one of the jailed leaders, Oriol Junqueraswho on June 7 said he would accept the pardons, while still maintaining that an amnesty remains the number one priority. 

And so, after almost four years behind bars for their role in the 2017 independence push, the stage was set for the release of the nine leading Catalan politicians and activists.