Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in a speech on Monday that the Spanish Cabinet will approve pardons for nine separatist Catalan politicians and activists imprisoned for their roles in the 2017 independence move, despite strong opposition.
Sánchez made the announcement in Barcelona while outlining the roadmap for the future of the northeastern region before a few hundred civil society representatives. The cabinet are due to approve the pardons on Tuesday.
Twelve separatist leaders were convicted for sedition and other crimes and nine of them were handed lengthy prison terms after they pushed ahead with a banned secession referendum and declared independence a few days later based on its results. Most unionists boycotted the vote, which took place amid police violence to stop it.
No prominent pro-independence supporters attended Sánchez’s speech at the Catalan regional capital’s opera house. Outside the venue, an anti-establishment party and the main pro-independence civil society group held a protest.
“With this action, we materially get nine people out of prison, but we symbolically add millions and millions of people to coexistence,” Sánchez said in his speech, titled “Reunion: a project for the future of all Spain.”
“We are going to do it for the sake of agreement, we are going to do it wholeheartedly,” he added.
The prime minister was interrupted by an activist who carried the unofficial pro-independence Catalan flag and shouted in favor of granting full amnesty to the separatists. While pardons are granted by the government as a way to spare punishment to those convicted, amnesty is seen as a recognition of no fault in the first place.
Pardons criticised by opposition parties
The pardons have become a deeply divisive and controversial topic in recent weeks, exacerbating the tensions of an already fraught political landscape.
The three main opposition parties (right-wing Partido Popular, far-right Vox and liberal Ciudadanos) have criticised Sánchez’s government and are rallying their supporters against the measure.
The opposition accuses the prime minister of using the pardons as a means to secure the backing of the Catalan parties. Sánchez’s socialists currently lead a minority government in coalition with the left-wing party Podemos and need smaller, regional groups to get its legislative programme passed.
Thousands opposed to the move called for Sánchez’s resignation earlier this month during a protest in Madrid, supported by the three Spanish opposition parties, from the political centre to the far-right.
An Ipsos poll released last week found that 53% of Spaniards are against the pardons, 29% support them and 18% don’t have an opinion on the matter. However, Catalan business leaders have come forward to back the proposal, saying it would foster social peace.
The controversy around the pardons coincides with the reopening of the Spanish economy, made possible thanks to a drop in COVID-19 cases and a marked acceleration in the vaccination campaign.
The country is getting ready to receive the first round of EU funds after the European Commission approved the country’s recovery and resilience plan.
Over the next few years, Spain is set to take in €69.5 billion in grants from the EU’s €750-billion recovery fund, known as Next Generation EU. Sánchez has described the recovery plan as the “most ambitious and transcendental of Spain’s recent history”.
Since the 2017 illegal referendum, the pro-independence movement has tried, with little success, to use Brussels as a stage to bring the conflict into the EU agenda. The institutions opted instead to keep their distance and treat the matter as a domestic issue for Spain to resolve on its own.
Earlier this year, Catalonia’s former leader Carles Puigdemont, who lives in exile in Belgium, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity after a vote in the European Parliament.
New Catalonia leader looking for solution with Spain’s PM
The recently elected pro-independence leader of Catalonia Pere Aragonès said last week that he was willing to sit at the table with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to find a solution to the long-standing conflict in the northern region of Spain.
“Our proposal is clear: the exercise of the right to self-determination, a referendum on the independence of Catalonia, and an amnesty law to end the repression,” he said.
For Aragonès, the pardons would be a welcome first step to build trust among both sides. However, he said more actions and concessions should follow.
“A pardon is a partial and incomplete solution. It’s true that it represents a step forward that might enable the liberation of the political prisoners. We’re not going to reject that,” he said.