Pro-independence leaders out of jail: what next?

Right-wing parties appeal against pardons, political dialogue, leaders barred from running in elections and European human rights court ruling regardless, among future scenarios

Former work minister Dolors Bassa being released from jail in Figueres on June 23, 2021 (by Gemma Tubert)
Former work minister Dolors Bassa being released from jail in Figueres on June 23, 2021 (by Gemma Tubert) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

June 24, 2021 03:22 PM

The nine pro-independence leaders serving decade-long sentences for the 2017 referendum have already been released after they were granted a pardon by the Spanish government on Tuesday, one day after they were announced by Spanish president Pedro Sánchez.

This is undoubtedly the beginning of a new scenario in the political conflict between Catalonia and Spain – but one in which the 2017 events, the subsequent judicial procedure and the pardons will still weigh heavily.

What comes next for the independence issue now that the nine politicians and activists behind bars for between three and a half and four years are no longer in prison?

Appeals against pardons

The pardons could be challenged in the Supreme Court, the institution that convicted the officials, but "it is not so easy" to do, according to the procedural law professor at Barcelona University, Jordi Nieva-Fenoll, talking to Catalan News before the move was approved by the Spanish cabinet.

He says the Supreme Court can review them because in the past they have considered themselves to have the powers to do so. Yet, the question is who can first challenge the pardons and on what grounds?

"To challenge such a decision legally you have to be affected by the decision," he explains. "And who is affected by the decision of the pardons?"

"Many have thought of political parties, but why is it legitimate for them to challenge the decision? There is no ground. And any other person in society? Why? There is no ground either," he adds.

However, far-right Vox and unionist Ciudadanos appealed less than 24 hours after the individuals were released, and the People's Party are also anticipating this move.

The 1870 pardons law gives exclusive powers to the Spanish government to put forward pardons as long as they provide reasons, what has motivated it.

"The only reason so far where the Supreme Court has declared a pardon void is that it is arbitrary, against reason," says Nieva, who was sure that Sánchez would comprehensively explain his reasons to avoid successful appeals.

Political dialogue will launch

The newly-elected Catalan government committed to prioritizing launching talks with Spain in their strategy to reach independence. Aragonès' cabinet wants to persuade Madrid to accept a referendum on self-determination.

Sánchez, despite having repeatedly rejected such a vote, is also eager to engage in dialogue, and he will welcome the Catalan president for a meeting on June 29, while a series of regular bilateral talks between governments are expected to follow.

Indeed, "reconciliation" was the reason given by the Socialist leader when announcing the measure, as opposed to the "confrontation" of the run-up of the 2017 peak of the conflict.

Leaders' political activity restricted

They are now out of jail, but the leaders' convictions are not 100% pardoned, since their decade-long disqualifications from public office will still apply. They were all barred from public office for as many years as they were imprisoned, meaning that the last of the nine will not be able to run in an election or hold a public post until July 5, 2031, the date set for former vice president Oriol Junqueras, who received the longest sentence.

The pardons also include a clause: those who benefit from this measure cannot "commit the same crimes" again in the coming 3 to 6 years – this will probably condition their political activity and statements to the press.

Case will continue in European Court of Human Rights regardless

Three of the individuals behind bars until now – Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull – have already taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after exhausting all possible paths of appeals in Spain's judicial system. The other six are expected to do the same soon.

The fact that they are no longer in a penitentiary does not deter them from taking their cases to Strasbourg, as they have been anticipating ever since the beginning of the procedures.

Yet, professor Nieva suggests to Catalan News that the officials still being behind bars might have sped up an ECHR ruling, but with them being already released, European magistrates may prioritize other cases.

In any case, he says that "the fact of being pardoned is just one more reason to say that the judgment was disproportionate, illegal and could be declared, if not void, questionable."

Trial on exiles and other officials still pending

Those in favor of a Catalan state say that pardons are insufficient and that the real solution should be an amnesty, which would also mean the end of judicial procedures for the exiled officials, including former president Puigdemont, for the dozens of officials with trials pending for the referendum logistics and for those who will face a fine to pay back the supposed public expenditure on organizing the 2017 vote.

Yet, as it only refers to those behind bars, the extradition requests for Puigdemont and the other former government members abroad will continue – pending a final decision on their immunity as MEPs. If they set foot in Spain again, they risk being arrested, put in provisional prison and convicted like their former cabinet colleagues. Furthermore, a trial of around 30 high-ranking officials is set to take place in the near future.