Spain to pardon Catalans jailed over illegal 2017 referendum

Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez delivers his speech at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on June 21, 2021 to outline his government's plans to pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid. (LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he plans pardons for nine Catalan separatists who were jailed for their role in the illegal independence referendum of 2017.

Speaking to an audience of civic leaders in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, Sanchez, 49, said he’ll recommend that his cabinet approves the pardons when it meets on Tuesday.

Catalonia’s failed attempt to break away from Spain marked a watershed for the country’s politics. Within a year, Sanchez had toppled the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy through a no-confidence vote but the Socialist-led administrations that followed have been plagued by instability and political fragmentation

“In the next few days, Spanish democracy will take a huge step toward reconciliation,” Sanchez said, to shouts from hall. “It is from here that we have to start on the path to rebuilding our ability to live together.”

The move is a high-stakes gamble for Sanchez, who is aiming to move past the rancor and gridlock which followed the Catalan crisis. But before that happens though, he knows he’ll face a ferocious backlash from conservatives who are opposed to any kind of reconciliation with the separatists.

Catalonia’s failed attempt to break away from Spain marked a watershed for the country’s politics. Within a year, Sanchez had toppled the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy through a no-confidence vote but the Socialist-led administrations that followed have been plagued by instability and political fragmentation.

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Sanchez is currently governing in a minority coalition with the far-left group Podemos while relying on support from Basque and Catalan nationalists to pass legislation. The prime minister says the pardons are necessary for Spain to move on to focus on the reconstruction of an economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

His critics, both in the conservative opposition and within his own Socialist party, claim it’s actually just political maneuvering to shore up the support he needs from one of the main Catalan secessionist groups, Esquerra Republicana.

Opposition to his plan is most intense in Madrid, where thousands of protesters gathered June 13 in a central plaza to demonstrate against the decision. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional president and one of Sanchez’s leading rivals, called on King Felipe not to sign the pardons. She was criticized by members of her own party, who said such an idea would be unconstitutional.

Spain’s Supreme Court has already issued a non-binding opinion advising against issuing the pardons. The judges argued that pardons require an apology, which has not been forthcoming.

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The government argues that Spain’s laws on sedition are much harsher than those in other western European countries and the sentences handed down — up to 13 years — were disproportionate.

Political tensions between Barcelona and Madrid reached a nadir in October 2017, during weeks of chaos following the illegal plebiscite when riot police deployed to the streets of the Catalan capital and the regional leaders threatened to declare independence.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont eventually fled to Belgium to escape the Spanish courts while several of his colleagues who stayed behind were jailed. One of those who remains in prison, Oriol Junqueras, was vice president under Puigdemont and is still head of Esquerra Republicana to this day. Esquerra governs Catalonia in coalition with Puigdemont’s party.