Josep Rull arrives in the visiting booth in Lledoners prison with a bottle of a litre and a half of water under his arm. It's Wednesday, ninth day of his hunger strike. He greets me with a wave and a smile before picking up the phone used to communicate through the glass partition. He's surrounded by a certain air of fatigue. He's wearing an electric blue fleece and a jacket. He's lost about five kilograms (11lbs), a rate of half a kilo a day. But his colour is good. The doctors have advised the strikers to take in the sun and, as soon as a single ray challenges the cold winter skies of Bages, they try to soak up all the vitamin D they can.
Rull speaks with a strong voice, but admits that they're starting to note the affects of the hunger strike. That notwithstanding, he's still got his sense of irony and humour. He even jokes about the situation created when they're collecting up the plates in the dining room, one of the jobs assigned to him. He explains that his eyes will follow even a simple sandwich. The hardest part was the first days because the feeling of hunger wouldn't go away. "You're ferociously hungry", he confesses, stressing each syllable.
The minister keeps up with his work assignments because he's then entitled to two telephone calls and one face-to-face meeting on top of his monthly allocation. Also, because the doctors have advised him to continue with some form of physical activity. And his fellow prisoners help him with whatever he can't manage.
[He protests the] very severe politicisation of the court [and the uncontrolled action by the powers-that-be in Spain to preserve the country's unity] at any price
Rull explains it without drama. Because he remains convinced it was a good move to adopt a measure as extreme as the hunger strike. This Wednesday, the Constitutional Court has rejected constitutional appeals from Carme Forcadell, Anna Simó, Anna Gabriel and Mireia Boya, and the prisoners think their pressure isn't unconnected to this decision, that their protest influenced it because the trend had been for the court to delay its verdicts for as long as possible. "The perception we have is that they're starting to open the drawer [they'd kept the cases in]," he says.
When talking about the Constitutional Court, the protests bubble up in a stream, against the "very severe politicisation of the court" and against the uncontrolled action by the powers-that-be in Spain to preserve the country's unity "at any price". He warns that the situation is very serious, and that today it's harming the independence movement but that the same will happen to anyone who dares question the deep state. "The Spanish state is frightening and the Spanish people are still unaware of it", he warns with a phrase the prisoners use to encapsulate the situation.
Rull, like the other prisoners on hunger strike, is only drinking water, a saline solution they'd been prescribed, and the odd hot camomile tea which he talks about with delight and which he brews in a teapot someone lent him.
He's noticing a loss of muscle mass, but above all he's noticing a very intense feeling of cold. That's one of the effects of losing fat. Cold especially affects your extremities whilst your energy reserves, ever more reduced, are concentrated on your vital organs.
He's also experiencing deep indignation mixed with incredulity, but that's not an effect of the hunger, but of listening to the accusations from PP and Cs of the supposed energy milkshakes they're given. Hearing that from leaders like Pablo Casado (PP) is, for Rull, "the most absolute amorality".
But they go on. They rate the effects of their protest on Catalonia positively, although what's surprised them has been the international impact, greater than they had expected. Around 25% of the letters they've received come from Belgium, Ireland, France, Germany, the UK, etc. On the other hand, in the rest of Spain, the "news blackout" continues.
The topic of the day this Wednesday in Lledoners, like outside the prison's thick walls, was Pedro Sánchez's speech in the Spanish Congress. They didn't like it at all.
It's unprecedented. He's falling into Vox's trap. It's impossible for him to ever win
"It's unprecedented. He's falling into Vox's trap. If he plays the match on the playing field of the right or the far right, it's impossible for him to ever win. He's renouncing doing politics by the book," he says with regret. Rull is outraged that Sánchez is calling on the independence movement to make a proposal which brings together 75% of Catalan society to sit down to speak: "When he has little more than 20% of the Congress!". "It's a severe offence with respect to the citizens of Catalonia with an inappropriate attitude of contempt," he says aghast.
However, one of the questions which currently most worries the prisoners is the Spanish cabinet meeting on the 21st December in Barcelona, the day of the first anniversary of the Catalan Parliament election called by Mariano Rajoy. He describes the gesture as "unfortunate", "and I'm holding myself back," he jokes.
He notes that the persecution of the independence movement has meant that almost 15% of the deputies elected in that election last year have had to give up their seats or cannot attend the Parliament because they're in prison or in exile. "It's a scandal of stratospheric proportions," he emphasises.
When we're going together and in a civil and peaceful manner we're unstoppable
At this point, however, Rull warns that if the cabinet wants to meet in Barcelona, it does have the right to meet there, just as members of the public have the right to disagree "peacefully, civilly and democratically, as always". And he says it time and again. Like an obsession. A mantra. An extreme concern in Lledoners right now.
Rull argues that the prisoners have chosen one of the most "powerful and emphatic" types of non-violent protest and they would like to "soak Catalan society in this spirit". "When we're going together and in a civil and peaceful manner we're unstoppable. When we've done that we always win," he said.
We cannot change course. We cannot fall into provocations. This movement has to continue expressing itself peacefully
The minister holds the booth's phone as if he wants to turn it into a megaphone to explain himself abroad. "We cannot change course. We cannot fall into provocations. This movement has to continue expressing itself peacefully," he says.
What does he think of the Slovenian path defended by president Quim Torra? "I prefer the Quim Torra of today who has said that we always move along the path of peace and democracy. That's the emphasis that needs to be placed".
Whilst he's speaking, Rull's hand is often on the glass. As if looking for an impossible contact. As he's blocked from his habitual gesture of putting his hand on your shoulder or arm to add emphasis to his words.
From now, Rull will cut down on visits. The hunger strike is sapping their strength. They're perfectly aware of it. But this weekend he'll be able to see his kids and wants to save his energy.