Catalan separatists given lengthy prison sentences

Nine Catalan separatist leaders have been cleared of violent rebellion over their roles in the failed bid for regional independence two years ago but found guilty of the lesser crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds, report agencies.

The region’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds by Spain’s supreme court, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was also banned from holding public office for 13 years. The former Catalan foreign minister Raül Romeva was convicted of the same offence and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and handed a 12-year ban on holding office, as were the former regional government spokesman Jordi Turull and the former labour minister Dolors Bassa.

Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament, was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison, while the former Catalan interior minister Joaquim Forn and former territorial minister Josep Rull got 10 and a half years each. Two influential pro-independence grassroots activists, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, were found guilty of sedition and given nine-year sentences. Three other independence leaders were found guilty of disobedience and handed fines and bans on holding office.

Monday’s verdict, delivered by seven judges at Spain’s supreme court, came at the end of a landmark, four-month trial that heard from 422 witnesses and investigated the events that triggered the country’s worst political crisis since it returned to democracy following the death of General Franco.

Junqueras responded to the sentence with a tweet urging people not to give up on Catalan independence. “We’ll return stronger and with even more belief than ever,” he wrote. “Thanks to everyone, keep fighting because we will keep fighting forever.” Jordi Sànchez, a regional MP and former president of the influential grassroots Catalan National Assembly, said his nine-year prison sentence would not dent his optimism nor his belief in an independent Catalonia.

He also issued an implicit plea for calm. “Let’s express ourselves without fear and move forward, non-violently, towards freedom,” he tweeted. Reacting to the sentences, the deposed regional president Carles Puigdemont described them as “an outrage” in a tweet on Monday morning. “It’s time to react as never before,” he wrote. “For the future of our children. For democracy, for Europe, for Catalonia.”

Puigdemont, who led the push for regional independence, was not among those on trial. He fled Spain to avoid arrest at the end of October 2017 and is living in self-imposed exile in Belgium. In a communique Barcelona en Comú, the group led by Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, expressed its indignation at what it called the “unjust sentences” and called for a united response on the part of Catalan political and citizens’ organisations.

Police have been deployed to Catalonia’s biggest travel hubs, with a large number of officers patrolling Barcelona airport and the city’s Sants railway station to guard against any attempts at direct action in response to the sentences. Police were also gathering at Girona’s main railway station.

A demonstration was under way along one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares, the Via Laietana, with protesters holding banners demanding the prisoners’ release. A small crowd also gathered at Plaça San Jaume, the seat of the Catalan government in Barcelona. Protesters holding banners reading “Take the street” and “Free political prisoners” in Barcelona after the nine Catalan leaders were sentenced.

Nine of the 12 defendants had stood accused of rebellion, which carries a prison sentence of up to 25 years. The case centred on the referendum on 1 October 2017, which was held in defiance of the then government of the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and of the country’s constitution, which is founded on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Polling day met with a heavy-handed and violent response from some of the national and Guardia Civil police officers who had been deployed to the area before the vote. Ballot boxes were forcibly seized, voters dragged out of polling stations and hit with batons, and rubber bullets fired.

Also scrutinised were the events of 20 September 2017, when police raided Catalan regional government offices and arrested 14 senior officials in an attempt to head off the vote. The raids brought thousands of Catalans out to protest. Guardia Civil officers found themselves trapped inside the buildings they were searching and three of their vehicles were vandalised.

The state prosecutor, Javier Zaragoza, had argued such behaviour constituted “physical, compulsive and intimidatory violence”, adding: “The violent nature of an uprising does not mean there has to be either serious or armed violence.” However, defence lawyers rejected such arguments, pointing out that under Spanish law, rebellion involves “revolting violently and publicly”.

The lesser offence of sedition, meanwhile, is defined as “rising up publicly and tumultuously to prevent, through force or beyond legal means, the application of the law”. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. The offence of disobedience carries a fine and a ban from holding public office, but not a jail term.

Rajoy reacted to the unilateral independence declaration by using the constitution to sack the secessionist Catalan government and assume control of the region. Appearing as a witness in February, the former prime minister laid the blame for the referendum day violence squarely at the door of Puigdemont’s Catalan government.

“If they hadn’t called people to vote in an illegal referendum and hadn’t made decisions that broke the law, neither you nor I would have had to see the injuries that some people and some members of the security forces had,” he told the court. The defendants have already said they will appeal to the European court of human rights if necessary.