Commentary. The referendum and declaration of independence were political acts, questionable if you will, but backed by broad popular support and with essentially symbolic effects. The reaction from Madrid, however, has been violence and the criminalization of politics.

Spain returns to an old practice: taking political prisoners

Hunted, arrested and locked up in a German prison awaiting extradition, Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the Catalan Generalitat, is the last great victim of an undeclared war, fought with the weapons of judicial acts, imprisonment, indictments and European arrest warrants which were set up for the purpose of fighting terrorism.

The “Catalan October” was not a revolution, an armed insurrection, a secession or a coup. There hasn’t been any violence, nor any acts of aggressive hostility toward the Spanish authorities in Catalonia. The referendum and subsequent (ambiguous) declaration of independence were political acts, questionable if you will, but backed by broad popular support and with essentially symbolic effects.

The reaction from Madrid, however, has been violent for all intents and purposes, involving the administrative occupation of the Catalan region and the prosecution and imprisonment of the leading exponents of the independence-supporting alliance. It culminated with the hunting down of Catalan politicians who had escaped abroad. While we do not want to make comparisons between two very distant political realities, Madrid’s reaction is not that different from that of Erdogan after the failed coup of July 2016, with the judicial persecution of the alleged followers of Fethullah Gulen, considered the instigator of the coup (which, in that case, actually occurred, despite all the debatable aspects surrounding it).

Spain has returned to the situation of holding political prisoners, in the proper sense of the term: persons deprived of their liberty because of actions that have never gone beyond the boundaries of an absolutely public and peaceful political act. Calling on the courts to downgrade a political question to a question of criminal law is always a dangerous choice, apt to lead to fractures of unexpected depth and long-term consequences.

It is futile to hide behind the pretense of the independence of the courts (regarding which one might harbor a few doubts in the Spain of the post-Franco compromise), or behind the supposed “objectivity” and automated nature of legal procedures. The persecution of the Catalan separatist leaders, the refusal of all dialogue, and the negation of a broad popular will constitute a political choice based on intimidation and violence, which brings to the fore once again, in an even more dramatic manner than before, the issue of Catalan autonomy. Moreover, when a political process is transformed into a judicial process, the failure to grant any “recognition” to the opponent and their point of view is something that usually leads to a spiral of repression and hostility without any mediation.

Europe has done little to calm the conflict between Barcelona and Madrid. There has been no serious invitation to work out a settlement that would take into account the grounds put forward by both sides. The fetish of national unity and the fear of facing demands for independence have suggested to all that they should unconditionally support the hard line of the Rajoy government, avoiding any examination of the status of the rule of law in Spain.

Now, in the deafening silence of European political opinion, it is the turn of the German courts, which are engaged in a comparison between the laws of Germany and those of Spain, in order to determine if, and for what, Puigdemont could be extradited. This will be nothing but a political decision disguised in legalese, because at the moment, in the view of Spanish and European public opinion, how the Catalan independence supporters will be dealt with is much more of a dramatic and urgent issue than the object of their aspirations (i.e. an independent Catalonia).

In short, one can be totally opposed to Catalan independence, and nevertheless consider outrageous the manner in which the government in Madrid, together with a partial judiciary, is addressing a deep political crisis.

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