It was 1,345 days ago that the first of the Catalan political prisoners entered prison. More than three and a half years have passed. But finally they are to be released. Spain's prime minister Pedro Sánchez himself announced it yesterday, speaking of new times in Catalan and Spanish politics. At the proposal of the justice ministry, the cabinet voted in favour today and approved the partial pardons for the nine pro-independence political prisoners. The clemency measure comes after the Spanish PM and his entire government have spent the last few weeks preparing the ground, completing the recipe with the cherry-on-top from Sánchez in his speech at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. And after obtaining the endorsement of both the new president of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, and the former vice-president and leader of ERC, Oriol Junqueras, as well as economic, business and even ecclesiastical spheres. King Felipe VI's signature, publication in the official gazette and the Supreme Court's formal settlement of the sentences so that the prison doors can be opened are all that is pending.
This Tuesday's meeting lasted longer than usual, almost four and a half hours. What came out are nine partial pardons, as expected, for Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Turull, Josep Rull, Carme Forcadell, Dolors Bassa, Raül Romeva and Joaquim Forn. The decrees eliminate the rest of the prison sentences for the offences of both sedition and misuse of public funds, but maintain the other part of their punishment, disqualification from holding public office for periods of 9-13 years. The pardon measure affects only the nine political prisoners, not the Catalan leaders in exile, who have not been tried and have therefore not been convicted in court. Nor has it been applied to the other Catalan ministers who were part of the 2019 trial, Meritxell Borràs, Carles Mundó and Santi Vila, not imprisoned, and who have already served their ban on holding public office. The pardons are also "reversible" if they "reoffend" over a period ranging from three to six years.
There are nine individualized files, each with its own arguments, but above all the Spanish government emphasizes the "public utility" the measure entails, one of the arguments that the legislation quotes as a reason to grant the clemency measure. Supreme Court sources say the judges will not delay their sentence settlement process.
Could the pardons be revoked? As the Spanish far right has already announced, an appeal against the pardons is expected from Vox, which conducted a private prosecution in the trial. However, many legal experts question whether an appeal could be successful because of the lack of legitimacy of the extreme right party led by Santiago Abascal. Meanwhile, for the independence movement, the pardons are a measure that falls short and they demand an amnesty to end all police and judicial action, which currently affects thousands.
The ground prepared
The granting of pardons comes just ten days after the demonstration by the three parties of the Spanish right in Madrid's Plaza de Colón, attempting to emulate the protest of February 2019 against the Spain-Catalonia dialogue table. Like the rally two years ago, it served to assist Vox, but this year's protest only drew half the crowd. In parallel, the petition campaign by the Popular Party, collecting signatures against the pardons, also emulated a tactic previously used on a Catalan issue, and it too is proving much less effective this time around. All in all, an easy runway for Pedro Sánchez. The Spanish PM has also yet to announce what will happen to the pending reform of the sedition law, and in addition, how he will tackle the situation of Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and the government ministers in exile, an issue on which discrepancies have emerged within the Spanish government itself.
On May 25th, a day before the Spanish Supreme Court expressed its opposition to the pardons - its view is non-binding for the government - Pedro Sánchez began paving the way for the move with a continuous public relations campaign. That day, from Brussels, he stated repeatedly that "revenge and vengeance" are not among the "constitutional values" he defends. Since then, his "pedagogy" on the pardons has continued, despite the revolt of some regional barons and the Socialist old guard, which he has managed to stifle. Asked about the political cost of the operation, the president of the Spanish government replied that "the cost would be to leave things entrenched."
From the Moncloa government palace they also expected a gesture from the Catalan side, which arrived on Monday, June 7th, taking advantage of the coincidence of president Aragonès and prime minister Sánchez at a business event. Moments beforehand, Oriol Junqueras sent a letter to the newspaper Ara and TV network LaSexta endorsing the pardons measure and prioritizing the negotiated route to independence over a unilateral path. He was well received by the central government. Hours later, it was the former minister and current leader of the opposition in the Catalan Parliament, Salvador Illa, who chimed in: "Pardons must be granted."
On Monday, from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, on Barcelona's Rambla, Pedro Sánchez made it official in an event with three hundred guests from "Catalan civil society", especially from the business world and the Socialist and Comuns orbit. "Someone has to take the first step. Tomorrow we can change the lives of nine people and hopefully we will start to change history," the Spanish prime minister defended from the stage. “We take nine prisoners out of jail, but we bring millions of people in to coexistence,” was how he described the equation.
Europe breathing down Spanish necks
In parallel to all this, also on Monday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe debated and passed a report that makes a de facto challenge to the entire trial of the independence leaders in the Supreme Court. Despite the manoeuvres of the Spanish parliamentary groups, the easily-passed resolution calls for the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution of those in European exile, through the withdrawal of European Arrest Warrants. This report is the first in-depth political assessment of the trial that a European institution has made, and so important that Spanish judges' associations became very nervous. The resolution passed adds to the position of other bodies, such as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.
The Supreme Court's political assessments
The pardons are being granted, as has occurred on many occasions, with judicial reports arguing against them. Both the public prosecutors and the Supreme Court. In the case of judge Manuel Marchena, the report issued was especially devastating, even entering into the realm of political assessments. The sentencing court used terms such as "self-pardon", because among the convicted politicians are leaders of political parties that "guarantee the stability of the Spanish government which has to decide on exercising the right to pardon." At the same time, the court defended the "proportionality" of the sentences imposed, which range from nine to 13 years jail, and remarked that the prisoners had not "repented".