Let's talk, says Spain, as jailed Catalan separatists pardoned

MADRID/BARCELONA (Reuters) -Spain’s government on Tuesday pardoned all nine separatist leaders jailed for their role in Catalonia’s failed independence bid in 2017, expressing hope that the gesture might help end a trial of strength that has sown deep divisions.

The leaders were sentenced in 2019 to between nine and 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds, after a referendum on a breakaway that authorities in Madrid banned but which led to a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

“With this act we want to open a new phase of dialogue, of reconciliation, and to stop, once and for all, all the divisions and confrontation,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a televised address, as one of the nine leaders reacted defiantly to news of the pardons.

They are conditional, and a ban on the leaders holding public office remains in place, Sanchez said, without specifying when the nine will be freed.

A government source said the decree granting the pardons, which could be rescinded in the event of a serious crime, should be published on Wednesday, and that the Supreme Court was unlikely to authorise the leaders’ release before then.

Surveys show that a majority of Spaniards oppose the pardons, but Sanchez is betting they will eventually weaken the pro-independence drive in the wealthy northeastern region, whose government has sought a new referendum on independence under Madrid’s auspices.

Raul Romeva who, as Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief in 2017, was sentenced to 12 years, said the region would continue its struggle for self-determination.

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“By pardoning nine people, they will not hide the repression they continue exercising against hundreds of separatists. We won’t give up the fight: amnesty and self-determination!” he tweeted.

Conservative opposition parties in Madrid have said they will challenge the pardons in court, arguing that they would give new strength to the separatist movement as most of the jailed leaders have not shown remorse, and accusing Sanchez of seeking primarily to shore up his parliamentary alliances.

Catalan separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya – whose chairman Oriol Junqueras is among the pardoned leaders – has been instrumental in enabling Sanchez to govern in 2020 and backed his administration’s budget.

In Catalonia some praised the pardons but said they were not enough.

“Politically it is a difficult decision for the Spanish government, but (this) … does not eliminate their ban from office and gives no consideration to the three thousand people who have pending cases” linked to 2017, said schoolteacher Josep Sunyer, 50, in Barcelona.

Hundreds of separatists protested in Barcelona on Monday, calling Sanchez’s plan inadequate and unconditionally demanding a new independence referendum.

Also on Monday, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a pan-European rights forum, called on Spain to also drop arrest warrants for Catalan politicians who fled Spain after the events of 2017.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry called the recommendation to halt those proceedings “incoherent”.

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