The Catalan political prisoners arrived in the Spanish Congress this Tuesday from Soto del Real prison under guard. There's no seating plan for the opening session of a new legislature, instead deputies-elect take places on a first-come, first-served basis. With places saved by their party colleagues, this meant JxCat's Jordi Sànchez, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull ended up sitting just behind the Spanish government, and ERC's Oriol Junqueras was on the second row. The prisoners could greet and speak to fellow deputies from a range of parties, from acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez and outgoing foreign minister Josep Borrell to Cs' number two, Inés Arrimadas. Podemos' leader Pablo Iglesias made a point of being the first to shake Junqueras' hand.
There were two main items on the agenda for the day: to swear in the deputies and to elect the new presiding Board. The latter of these gave few surprises. Pedro Sánchez had hand-picked Catalan Meritxell Batet, previously his territorial policy minister, to replace PP's Ana Pastor, and she got through in the second round of voting with 175 votes from PSOE, Unidas Podemos, EAJ, Compromís, Coalición Canaria and Partido Regionalista de Cantabria. ERC and EH Bildu spoiled their ballots, JxCat abstained, as did Vox.
The former step, however, meant the Congress couldn't ignore the prisoners in their midst, but everything suggests this will only last for a few days. Almost no one in Madrid doubts that the new Board will immediately start proceedings to suspend them.
Today, however, as veterans returned to the chamber and new members tried to find out how everything works, the prisoners were the headline. And that's even with the arrival of a far-right party in the Congress for the first time since the end of Franco's dictatorship, with Vox and their 24 deputies. They did make the most of the opportunity, however, taking seats directly behind Pedro Sánchez and his cabinet.
The greatest tension this morning was seen during the swearing in of the new deputies. As long as they are brief and either "swear" or "promise" to abide by the Constitution, new deputies are free to vary the wording of their oath as they please. Montserrat Bassa (ERC), for example, gave her promise "for the release of the political prisoners, for the Catalan republic and due to legal imperative", whilst Laura Borràs (JxCat), gave hers "with loyalty to the democratic mandate of the 1st October [2017 referendum] and the Catalan people and for the freedom of the prisoners and exiles". The chamber erupted with Vox, Cs and some from PP trying to drown them out, whilst pro-independence deputies applauded their support. Cs' Albert Rivera tried to stop the swearing in continuing with such statements, but new speaker Batet was ready with the relevant legislation in hand: "It's not the first time different formulas have been used to swear or promise".
All the pro-independence deputies promised to respect the Constitution but, in one way or another, referred to the 2017 referendum and the prisoners. Junqueras, for his part, promised "from republican commitment, as a political prisoner and due to legal imperative", whilst Vox and Cs continued in their attempts to silence him.
Sànchez, Turull and Rull all gave similar oaths, but earned even stronger protests from Ciudadanos, sitting just across the aisle, as they were being recorded by party colleagues on their mobiles, something not allowed in the chamber.
But the independence supporters weren't the only ones to use their oaths of office as a chance to make a political point. Others promised to obey the Constitution for freedom of expression, for democracy, against fascism and against racism. "They won't pass!" shouted a deputy from Podemos, whilst Santiago Abascal (Vox) swore "for Spain!" and Albert Rivera (Cs) promised "to defend the Constitution".
The prisoners' arrival
The prisoners were applauded on their arrival in the chamber. They entered through a side door, kept away at all times from the media outside in the corridors. From outside, however, their reception was clearly audible, applauded as they were by members of their parties and some from other groups, as well as the members of the Catalan government and Parliament in the gallery.
Yellow ribbons, symbols of support for the prisoners, were scattered around the chamber on the lapels of deputies from JxCat and ERC as well as EH Bildu and EAJ. The focus, however, was on the t-shirts certain members chose to wear. Montserrat Bassa, for example, sister of imprisoned former minister Dolors Bassa, had one with a photo of her sister and the slogan "Freedom Political Prisoners".
Doubtlessly, however, the t-shirt which got the most attention belonged to Marta Rosique (ERC). The youngest member of the legislature, at 23, she was part of the temporary Board which presided over Batet's election. The t-shirt in question was black with a pro-independence "starred" estelada flag in the logo of Acció Antifeixista Països Catalans (Anti-fascist Action Catalan Countries).
During breaks in proceedings, for example to count votes, the prisoners were free to walk around the chamber. Many of their fellow deputies approached them to say hello or talk, some even took selfies. The moment that generated the most interest was when Junqueras spoke to Pedro Sánchez, telling him they needed to talk. He also had a long conversation with minister Josep Borrell, a Catalan member of PSOE and one of the party's figures who has been the most strongly opposed to independence. Following Junqueras, Josep Rull did the same. Indeed, between them, the four had numerous exchanges with cabinet members.
Conversation with Arrimadas
The strange situation, and the attempt to bring in some sense of normality, led to curious scenes like the prisoners greeting Cs deputies like Juan Carlos Girauta, José Manuel Villegas and even Inés Arrimadas, previously their most vocal opponent in the Catalan Parliament. The conversation with Arrimadas apparently took place in the bar reserved for members of Congress. Members of JxCat and ERC present say she, on her own initiative, greeted Rull, Turull and Junqueras, reports that Cs claim are untrue.
The visit to the bar allowed the four to have a breakfast, or a second one after the one prepared for them earlier by police. Turull had an omelette and a glass of wine, as shared on social media despite the ban on photographs in the space.
When Batet suspended the session, now formally underway, the prisoners were among the last to leave, having said goodbye to many of their colleagues and having received another round of applause from their party colleagues. Then it was back to prison, under the guard of the police who had entered the chamber to collect them.