24th Sep 2020

Nine Catalan separatist leaders given long jail terms

  • The Spanish government said it was ready to take direct control of Catalonia again - as it did in 2017 - if secessionist leaders continue to break the law (Photo: Ivan Mlinaric)

The Spanish Supreme court on Monday (14 October) sentenced nine Catalan leaders to between nine to 13 years in prison for sedition and the misuse of public funds, over their role in the region's 2017 failed bid for independence.

The three other defendants were found guilty only of disobedience and not sentenced to prison.

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However, the defence teams announced that they will appeal the decision at the Spanish Constitutional Court and at the European Court of Human Rights.

The president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, asked for a meeting with the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, saying that the ruling was "unfair and antidemocratic".

The trial against the Catalan separatist leaders refers back not just to the events of 1 October 2017 - when the so-called self-determination referendum took place - but also the 6 and 7 September, when the Catalan parliament approved the referendum laws and judicial transition towards Catalan independence.

"Europe must understand that [during these days] there was an important violation of the civil rights of Catalan citizens and the rule of law by the government [of Catalonia]" said Spanish MEP Luis Garicano (from the liberal Renew group).

The former leader of Catalonia, and head of the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana party and 'Spitzenkandidat' of European Free Alliance (EFA), Oriol Junqueras, received the longest sentence - 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds.

According to the president of the Greens/EFA, Ska Keller, the ruling of the Spanish court was "disproportionate" and "it will only serve to deepen the political crisis in Catalonia".

"The situation in Catalonia requires a political solution and should not be dealt through the courts," she added.

"Far from providing any solution, the verdict against these political prisoners shifts the conflict to the European arena and the international courts of justice," Catalonia's minister for foreign affairs, Alfred Bosch, said in a statement.

However, according to MEP Javier Nart (Renew), the EU, in accordance with its treaties, determines the defence of the unity and constitutional values of each country.

Rebellion vs Sedition

The verdict ends one of the most controversial trials in the Spanish recent history.

However, according to MEP Garicano, the Spanish court acted very carefully - with a public trial and offering the maximum guarantees to the separatist leaders.

"Using the power and authority of the state in order to attack the constitutional order and violate the civil rights of the population is punished in every country," Garicano said on Twitter.

"No one is above the law," he added.

Nine of the 12 defendants – including Junqueras, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell, and two influential activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez – were accused of rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years.

As a result, they also remained in custody after being arrested in late October 2017.

However, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled last week against convicting the secessionist leaders of the crime of consummated rebellion in connection with the 2017 breakaway bid from Spain, since the crime of rebellion requires an element of violence.

The court found that there were "undeniable acts of violence" in Catalonia in the autumn of 2017, but that these were not enough to convict the defendants of rebellion.

The sedition charge was brought by Spain's solicitor general - the representative of the Spanish state in courts - who did not pursue rebellion charges, and instead focused on the crime of sedition and misuse of public funds.

The 1995 Spanish Criminal Code, that typifies and punishes the crimes of rebellion and sedition, was approved with the votes of several parties, including the Basque nationalists and the Catalan separatists.

Apart from some pieces of documentary evidence, like emails and reports, most of the evidence heard during the trial have come from witnesses.

The Spanish court accepted more than 400 witnesses, extending the trial over four months, with more than 50 sessions.

However, some witnesses were rejected, such as Spain's King Philip VI, and the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the failed independence bid in 2017 to avoid prosecution and currently lives in Waterloo.

Responding to the verdict, Puigdemont tweeted: "We have to react like never before. For the future of our children. For democracy. For Europe. For Catalonia".

MEP immunity?

Meanwhile, seven of the separatist politicians involved in Catalonia's referendum are still fugitives from justice, according to the Spanish authorities.

In the upcoming days, they are likely to face a third extradition request by Spain, following two previous failed attempts.

MEP Mayte Pagaza (also from Renew) said that the European arrest warrant should be reformed because "it does not work adequately".

The future commissioner of justice Didier Reynders pledged to improve this system in his hearing before the European parliament.

However, he insisted that the "right to defence" needs to be guaranteed, as well as "proportionality" and "balance" of this judicial mechanism.

Renew and European People's Party (EPP) have been critical about the European arrest warrant ever since two extradition requests issued by Spain failed, in 2017 and 2018.

Additionally, three of the Catalan separatists - Puigdemont, Junqueras and Antoni Comín - who were elected as MEPs in the May's European elections - did not complete the legal requirements to take their seats as Spanish MEPs, triggering unanswered questions regarding the interpretation of their parliamentarian immunity as elected MEPs.

The Spanish Supreme Court ruling comes ahead of a hearing at the European Court of Justice that may establish the immunity of Oriol Junqueras - facing 13 years in jail in Spain - as an elected MEP.

"The European Parliament should raise its voice and defend the rights of all voters and all those people who were voted to become representatives of the citizens of Europe," separatist MEP Diana Riba from the Greens said.

Is any opposition 'rebellion'?

The unionist parties Ciudadanos, the Socialists (PSOE), the People's Party (PP) and the far-right party Vox have not questioned Spain's judiciary, and called on everyone to respect the verdict.

However, Riba said the verdict means "any opposition to the government or demonstration against the status quo can be judged and sentenced as rebellion or sedition, [being] against the European values and fundamental rights".

"We will use policymaking in the institutions and on the streets until the justice missing [in this trial] is found," she tweeted.

After the ruling was published, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) of Catalonia tweeted: "It's time to rise up against the authoritarian fascism of the Spanish state and its accomplices. It is time for the #RevoltaPopular (popular revolt)."

Spanish police are now concerned about the potential scope of street demonstrations Catalonia. Law enforcement said that they are prepared to tackle isolated incidents, but its resources may be insufficient for a prolonged scenario of protests.

The Spanish government said they were ready to take direct control of Catalonia - as it did in 2017 - if secessionist leaders break the law again.

Meanwhile, a opinion poll in July showed 48.3 percent of Catalans against secession and 44 percent in favour.

High tension in Catalonia two years after referendum

Two years after the former government of Carles Puigdemont held a unilateral independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish courts and constitution, the political and social conflict in Catalonia is still a key issue for both Spain and Europe.

Catalonia celebrates national day ahead of trial verdicts

Catalonia celebrated on Wednesday its national day - while awaiting the trial verdict on 12 Catalan separatists, former politicians of Carles Puigdemont's government. That decision is expected for early October.

French MPs criticise Catalonia situation ahead of verdict

More than 50 French MPs have voiced their concerns about the situation in Catalonia. The acting Spanish minister for foreign affairs - and incoming EU foreign affairs chief - Josep Borrell has lamented "the ignorance about the reality of Spain".


Catalonia MEPs are a judicial, not political, issue

Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin currently live outside Spain. They were prosecuted for the serious crimes, and they have fled justice. It is not possible to judge in absentia in Spain, where the justice system protects the rights of defendants.

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