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Catalan independence demo. Photo: wikimedia commons

Catalan independence demo. Photo: wikimedia commons

The sentences handed out to the Catalan leaders shows the lengths the Spanish state will go to to maintain its control of Catalonia, argues Chris Bambery

The Supreme Court of Spain has sentenced nine Catalan pro-independence leaders to between 9 to 13 years in jail for sedition

Former vice president Oriol Junqueras, an elected member of the European and Spanish Parliaments, will serve 13 years behind bars, with former ministers Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva and Dolors Bassa getting 12 year sentences. They were all found guilty of sedition and misuse of funds for their role in the 2017 referendum push.

The former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, was sentenced to 11 and a half years for sedition. Former ministers Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull were convicted of the same time, getting 10 and a half years each, while civic activists Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart being sentenced to 9 years each, also for sedition.

They are all also barred from office for as many years, and their joint sentence adds up to some 99.5 years in jail.

These are harsh sentences. Sanchez and Cuixart have already been held for two years in preventative detention and seven others for well over year.

There was never going to be clemency from the Spanish state regarding the 12 Catalan civic and political leaders charged with rebellion and sedition in connection with the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum.

A visit to the hearing at the Spanish Supreme Court left you with the understanding that behind the legal niceties and the façade of normality you were witnessing a political trial. This was after all a political issue, the right of Catalans to exercise the right to self-determination, and political charges, rebellion and sedition cannot be apolitical. Spain’s highest court was deciding on a political question which cannot be resolved in a judicial manner.

But it was obvious in the last few days there would be no other outlook than heavy prison sentences. Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, issues statements clearly saying Catalonia would never be able to hold an independence referendum and that he was ready to push aside Catalan autonomy and impose direct rule from Madrid. Even Spain’s support for Turkey’s military assault on the Kurds showed, to quote an English football chant, “no-one likes us, but we don’t care”. It was also buttressing up support in Spain for a hard line towards Catalan aspirations.

That the Supreme Court did not find the defendants guilty of rebellion is not a surprise or a sign of leniency. Spain failed to extradite Catalan President Carles Puigdemont from Germany because a court there would not rule in favour of that charge. By ditching the rebellion charge the court grasped it could not stick in a Belgian, Scottish or Swiss court but by finding the defendants guilty of sedition they might then use that to re-open extradition requests for Puigdemont and other exiled Catalan leaders.

Repeatedly in covering this trial I have tried to explain two simple things. Firstly, the Spanish state is based on Castilian nationalism which cannot countenance any possibility of a granting the Catalans or Basques self-determination. Secondly, from the beginning Castilian nationalism has always required an “other” to demonise whether it be Muslims or Jews at its very outset, the Basques in the 1980s and 1990s and today the Catalans.

For what these sentences are saying to the Catalans is “you won’t like this, but we don’t care.” Support for independence is finely balanced but support in Catalonia for the prisoners is overwhelming. It is obvious that this verdict is going to drive greater numbers of Catalans towards the conclusion Madrid could not care less about their democratic rights.

Dropping the guilty verdict on the rebellion charges does not break with the narrative of the prosecution echoed by the Spanish media and politicians that 1 October 2017 and the days leading up to it saw a violent attempt in Catalonia to subvert the Spanish constitution and the rule of law.

As the Catalan paper El Nacional points out:

“Sedition, as defined in Spanish law, is different to how we understand the word in general English. It means the court has found them guilty of “rising up publicly and tumultuously” against the law and/or the authorities.”

Yet those who were in Catalonia on 1 October 2017, including a host of parliamentary and legal observers from Europe and beyond, witnessed no violence on the part of Catalans trying to vote. Instead they saw the para-military Spanish Civil Guards and National Police smashing their way into polling stations, beating those queuing to vote or non-violently defending the places of voting and in cases using plastic bullets.

Two of those found guilty, Jordi Cuixart, president of the cultural organisation Omnium, and Jordi Sanchez, president of the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly, have been jailed because they supposedly incited crowds gathered to protest at Spanish police raiding government ministries in the build up to the referendum. In fact, videos freely available on social media shows them calming the crowd and asking them to disperse, which they did, to avoid violence.

Both have always repeatedly stated their commitment to non-violence, as have the other prisoners, to no avail.

Of course, this case will now go to the European Court of Justice and many believe it will overturn the sentences – the charge of sedition does not still exist in Western European democracies. But that could take up to seven years. Carme Forcadell would be 70 by then. Her principle act of “sedition” was as Speaker allowing the Catalan Parliament to debate independence, something a majority of its members desired.

I have visited her in jail and helped organise her visit in 2017 to the British House of Commons where she met the Speaker, John Bercow, who greeted her from the Speaker’s chair at the opening of the session. Since then he has told the House of Commons it is inconceivable such a charge could be brought to court in Britain and was quoted as such by Forcadell’s defence team.

Jordi Cuixart who I have visited in prison and whose partner, Txell Bonnet, whose just had their second child, visited the British Parliament to meet with MPs and Peers, He is one of the most impressive people I have ever met who is vigorous in insisting on non-violence.

Former foreign affairs minister, Raül Romeva, was another visitor to Westminster and a former MEP in the Green group. Sharply dressed and sharp minded was my judgement of him.

I have only had a snatched and shouted conversation over the shoulders of Court officials with Oriol Junqueras, but he is deeply religious and its hard to see how his Christian beliefs sit with the way the Supreme Court has portrayed him as a man of violence seeking a violent break with Spain.

That these and the other five will serve such sentences is almost inconceivable but it is, tragically, what I expected.

There are already protests on the streets of Catalonia. Across Europe they need to be supported with protests outside Spanish embassies and consulates of not just the Catalan community but by citizens of every European country.

Regarding the European Union the simple truth is that if this was Iran, Russia or Turkey there would not just be strong words of protest but sanctions. In the case of Spain, I expect – nothing. If that is the case it speaks volumes to the commitment of EU leaders to human rights.

This must be the biggest civil liberties issue in recent European history. The Catalan parliament voted to hold a referendum to decide on independence but was repeatedly blocked by the Spanish government. They held an indicative one – it was ignored in Madrid. Eventually they held a full referendum which was subject to a violent attack on the democratic process by the Spanish state. When it voted for independence the Catalan Parliament voted for a declaration of independence but did not act on it because they still hoped for dialogue. Dialogue didn't but repression did. Spain is now driving Catalans towards the exit door but hey, “no one likes us but we don’t care.”

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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