Analysis. The harshest sentence was handed out to the former Catalan vice president and political leader of Esquerra Republicana, Oriol Junqueras: 13 years in prison. The defense teams have stated that their aim is to appeal the sentences before the European Court of Human Rights.

Long prison sentences for Catalan separatists spark massive protests

“Vengeance”—this is the word most often used by separatist politicians to describe the harsh sentences handed down Monday by the judges of the Spanish Supreme Court against the 12 pro-independence leaders who organized an illegal referendum in 2017. The nine, who have been in preventive detention for two years, were handed a total of almost 100 years in prison, while the other three, who had not been arrested, were convicted of mere “disobedience” and not sentenced to prison terms.

The crime of which the nine have been convicted is sedición: sedition, equivalent to a crime against public order, a category introduced to condemn social unrest back when there was no recognized right to protest. They were acquitted, however, of the charge of “rebellion” (something that would apply in case of a coup). In essence, they have been convicted for organizing public protests that have been generally peaceful. 

Despite this ominous warning for anyone who wants to manifest their dissent in Spain from now on, and despite the disproportionate jail terms, the ruling is still a blow against the Rajoy government, the PP, Ciudadanos, not to mention Vox (who were even allowed to take an active part in the trial), and even against Judge Llarena. The Supreme Court judges found that no attempted coup or violent plan had been undertaken, and no secession had actually been claimed, because—as the judges wrote—the accused were aware that the demonstrations, the referendum and the protests were intended to get the government to approve a commonly agreed referendum on the Scottish model. 

In other words: the overblown charges of rebellion were only brought because the case was being tried in Madrid and not in Barcelona. The rebellion charges also forced the suspension from Catalan Parliament of those accused who are members, as the law allows for those charged with rebellion.

The harshest sentence was handed out to the former Catalan vice president and political leader of Esquerra Republicana, Oriol Junqueras: 13 years in prison, and disqualification from holding any public office for 13 years. Each of the other three ministers, Raúl Romeva, Dolors Bassa and Jordi Turull, were sentenced to 12 years (of both prison and disqualification from public office). 

Two other ministers, Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn, got 10 years and a half, because the court deemed that in their case, the aggravating circumstance of the misuse of public funds was not present (i.e. the organization of the referendum itself, according to the judges, although it has not been shown that the Generalitat, which was under strict fiscal control from Madrid at the time, spent even one euro). 

The former president of the Catalan Parlament, Carme Forcadell, was sentenced to 11 years and a half, in effect for nothing more than allowing Catalan deputies to vote on a number of laws in violation of the decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court. The two Jordis, activists at the head of the pro-independence organizations ANC and Òmnium Cultural, each got nine years.

The only small hope left open by the judges is that, if the prison authorities (which are subordinate to the Catalan government) give their approval, in a few months the convicted would be eligible to take advantage of prison privileges that would allow them to leave prison during daytime. The prosecution and the Supreme Court might oppose this in the end, but at least the possibility has been left open.

The defense teams have stated that their aim is to appeal the sentences before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. However, before they can file such an appeal, there are still two steps which they must pursue: they need to ask the same Supreme Court to declare a mistrial due to failing to protect the rights of the accused (the Supreme Court has dedicated 170 pages from the 500 pages of this latest ruling to disproving this claim); once this is rejected, the lawyers will also have to ask the Constitutional Court to strike down the sentence.

No surprises are expected from the Constitutional Court, heavily politicized as it has always been in Spain; however, it may take years to get to that point. Then, the road would be open to have the case heard in Strasbourg, where the probability that the Spanish authorities would end up embarrassed (as was the case with the European arrest warrants issued for Puigdemont and his exiled companions) is very high. 

Besides, the ruling also contains glaring untruths, such as the claim that it was “proven by the facts” that former minister Bassa ordered to open the schools to vote on the referendum day. Actually, she was only Minister of Social Affairs, and the minister who took responsibility for the opening of the schools was Clara Ponsati (now safe in exile in Scotland). Judge Llarena, emboldened by the ruling, has once again—for the third time—reactivated the European arrest warrants for her and for the former Catalan president Puidgemont.

The reactions to the decision came immediately: on Monday, Catalonia saw spontaneous demonstrations, the blocking of streets, highways and railways and a mass protest convened by “Democratic Tsunami” at the Barcelona airport, which caused the cancellation of dozens of flights. There, the police (mossos) conducted dozens of charges against demonstrators and journalists.

The protest from the Catalan government, through the voice of President Quim Torra, was to be expected. The chorus of dissenting voices was also joined by the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who spoke of an “unjust” sentence, as well as all the left-wing parties, which consider the sentence a “political” one and insist that a way must be found to get the nine out of prison.

However, Pedro Sánchez, now completely in alignment with the PP and Ciudadanos on the issue, made a hardline law-and-order speech in which he said that they must serve their time in full. It looks like there will not be any pardon—something that the government in Spain can grant at will, and a prospect that had been rumored for some time in order to compensate for the extraordinary severity of the sentences, especially before the upcoming November elections. The protests and strikes are set to continue today and in the coming days.

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