Spain: Behind the ‘pardons’ of Catalan political prisoners

Issue 
Some of the pardoned prisoners on their release from jail. Photo: Jordi Cuixart/Twitter

Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative opposition People’s Party (PP) is up in arms, determined to stop anyone — no matter how holy or rich — from backing Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s plan to pardon the nine imprisoned Catalan leaders of the October 1, 2017 independence referendum.

The PP leader sounded dire warnings about this decision by the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) on June 21, the day Sánchez justified the pardons at an invitation-only event at Barcelona’s Liceu opera house, called “Reunion: a Project for the Future of All of Spain”.

Sánchez said: “With this act we release nine people from prison, but we reconnect with tens of thousands more. I don’t agree with those who say that social harmony is helped by keeping these people in prison.”

Announcing that the time had come for the “rule of politics” and negotiation within the Constitution, Sánchez said he looked forward to a new period of dialogue with the Catalan government.

Casado said of Sánchez: “He’s using a pardon to deal a coup de grace to the rule of law, perverting the instrument of pardon to confer it for the first time on people who are not asking for it, don’t repent, and are threatening to reoffend…

“Instead of implementing the law and reinforcing the shopfront against secessionism’s smash-and-grab operators, he opens the door for them, gets them a cab when they’re leaving with their loot, and tells us that his approach is much more moderate and civilised.”

For Casado, the goal of the alliance between Sánchez, UP and “the nationalists” was the destruction of Spain and the PP.

“The nationalists want Spain and all it represents to disappear. Sánchez wants the PP and all we represent to disappear,” he said. “The nationalists need Sánchez to make Spain disappear, and Sánchez needs the nationalists to make the PP disappear. That‘s what the pardons scam is about. End of story.”

The Spanish cabinet adopted the plan on June 22. The following day, Casado challenged Sánchez to call early elections over the pardons.

Outrage shortage

How did Casado — riding high after the PP trounced the PSOE in the May 4 Madrid regional elections — get so far offside with the major powers-that-be in Spain so fast?

The underlying reason is that the prospect of pardoning the Catalan leaders hasn’t generated the huge outrage in the rest of Spain that Casado and the rest of the Spanish-patriotic right were hoping for.

At the same time, the pardons have been welcomed by most of the non-independentist Catalan business establishment as a potential circuit-breaker in Catalonia’s conflict with the Spanish state, and so potentially as a positive factor for all-Spanish business and economy as well.

The weekend of June 12–13 brought evidence that there might even have been advantage for Sánchez in pressing ahead with the pardons.

A June 13 Madrid demonstration — organised by the Spanish-patriotic right against the pardons — flopped, attracting only 25,000 people. This contrasted with a February 2019 anti-Sánchez protest that drew 45,000.

The tone of the event was set by Vox and extreme right Francoist sects, with mainstream PP and Citizens supporters notable for their absence.

The same day, in the preselection for the lead PSOE candidate for the next election in Andalusia, Sánchez’s long-term rival and former Andalusian premier Susana Díaz — suspected of opposition to the pardons — lost to Seville mayor Juan Espadas (supported by Sánchez).

Following the flop of the right’s Madrid demonstration, institutional support for the pardons grew. The main trade union confederations, the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Workers Union (UGT) came on board, while CEOE president Antonio Garamendi remarked in a radio interview that if the pardons “led to things getting normalised, blessed be it”.

It was at this point that Casado exploded, telling the sceptical pro-pardons audience at the annual meeting of Catalan business’s Economy Circle that “we cannot accept talk of the [Spanish] justice system as vindictive or the sentence of a democratic court as punitive”.

The road to ‘pardon’

The PSOE-UP government has been running Spain since December 2019, but it took Sánchez and his chief strategist Ivan Redondo more than two years to reach the conclusion that they had no choice but to get the nine Catalan political prisoners out of jail.

Before his conversion to this position, Sánchez was at times as gung-ho about refusing them early release as the PP itself. Indeed, Spain’s slippery prime minister wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything that would damage his options of allying with the right if his more radical left UP partner became too fractious.

Moreover, granting pardons to unrepentant Catalans (“We’ll do it again”, said Òmnium Cultural leader Jordi Cuixart) would almost certainly be a vote-loser in the Castilian heartlands of the Spanish state.

It wouldn’t be much of a vote-winner in Catalonia itself, where majority sentiment remains overwhelmingly in favour of amnesty and a Scottish-style negotiated referendum (both “impossible” and “unconstitutional” for the PSOE).

Inside the PSOE-UP government, the nagging about a pardon by UP’s Catalan partner Together We Can (ECP) was waved aside: there was no way UP was going to abandon its cabinet seats just because attorney-general Juan Carlos Campo was letting the machinery for organising a pardon grind away while Redondo and Sánchez made up their minds.

However, the conclusion that something like pardons had to happen became unavoidable after two events: the February 14 Catalan regional elections, which handed the pro-independence parties their first ever vote majority, and the last-minute investiture of a coalition Catalan government on May 21.

In this context, having Catalan leaders in jail meant that the strategy for defeating the Catalan movement being pursued by the PSOE and its local franchise, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — both tainted by their 2017 support for suspension of self-government — was bound to fail.

Adding to the pressure on Sánchez was the steady decline in the reputation of the Spanish judiciary. This was partly due to the reports on the Catalan prisoners and exiles by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Commission on Arbitrary Detentions, but most of all to the consistent refusal of European courts to return exiled Catalan leaders to Spain for trial.

The prospect of exposure of the Spanish justice system grew with the Constitutional Court’s rejection in late April of the appeal of former minister Jordi Turull against his Supreme Court sentence. In early June, the court repeated this decision in the cases of former minister Josep Rull and social movement leaders Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez .

In all four cases, judges José Antonio Xiol and María Luisa Balaguer issued a dissenting opinion questioning the Spanish Supreme Court’s verdict of “sedition” and criticising the severity of the sentences: this opinion can serve as the basis for appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The low point for Spain’s judicial reputation was reached on June 21, when the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted 70 to 28 with 12 abstentions in favour of a motion calling for the freeing of the political prisoners, the return of the exiles and the dropping of all outstanding referendum-related prosecutions.

‘Pardons’ with strings

Given all this, the pardons simply had to happen. The question then was how to craft them to minimise political damage, especially given that the Supreme Court had issued an opinion against pardoning any of those it had jailed for up to 13 years.

In particular, the court took umbrage at Cuixart’s statement that “we’ll do it again”, stating that the words “express an antidemocratic attitude in which conscience and social commitment that every citizen would endorse authorises the pulverising of the foundations of social harmony.”

The grounds for awarding the pardons therefore have nothing to do with remorse or penitence: the release of the prisoners is justified solely on the grounds of its “public usefulness” in making possible the recovery of supposedly lost social harmony in Catalonia.

By releasing the leaders of hundreds of thousands of Catalans, the Spanish government is hoping to rebuild bridges with those alienated by their imprisonment, even as it insists on the impossibility of having a referendum or amnesty.

Nor are the pardons to be seen as corrections of the vindictive October 2019 Supreme Court verdict, which is expressly endorsed as rigorous and sound in law.

Most of all, the “pardoned” Catalan leaders are still prohibited from running for public office for the full length of their sentence. They are also on effective good behaviour bonds of between three and six years — if they “reoffend”, they’ll be back in jail.

It was no surprise that the prisoners were greeted with enormous enthusiasm when they left jail at midday on June 23. There was no gratitude for Sánchez, only gratitude for those who had never wavered, and whose tenacity had left the PSOE-led government with no alternative but to release them.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed account will soon appear on Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]