Anti-graft Prosecutor files charges against CUP over 2017 indy referendum campaign

The special Prosecutor, who is probing an alleged misappropriation of funds, has summoned to a court hearing a member of the anti-capitalist party’s 2017 leadership

The Spanish Police tried unsuccessfully to enter the CUP's headquarters in September 20th, 2017 / MANOLO GARCÍA

On 20 September 2017, CUP elected officials, party members and sympathisers physically prevented Spain’s National Police from entering the separatist party’s HQ without a search warrant, after officers had spotted several people leaving the premises with referendum propaganda material. On 3 August this year, two Spanish police officers turned up requesting the CUP’s campaign budget for the 2017 independence referendum and the budget of the CUP’s parliamentary group for the same year, as well as a list of the individuals who made up the far-left party’s leadership in 2017. This newspaper has learnt that Spain’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor has filed charges against CUP members over the funds (€168,666) that the anti-capitalist party spent to persuade voters to support independence in the referendum held on 1 October 2017.

The investigation was prompted by a resolution proposal from unionist party Ciudadanos in the Catalan Parliament and it has meant that several of the CUP’s referendum campaign suppliers have been deposed in court. On Monday this week a then-member of the party leadership also appeared in court as a defendant. The depositions, which began in February but were paused due to the coronavirus, started up again a few weeks ago. The resolution that Ciudadanos submitted last year points out that public funds paid to parliamentary groups from the Catalan Parliament’s budget to support their activities may never be used “to finance unlawful acts”, such as “the illegal vote of 1 October 2017”, as they refer to the referendum on independence. Therefore, the CUP may be facing convictions for a crime of misappropriation of funds after spending public cash from their parliamentary group on their referendum campaign. As a matter of fact, in the 2017 accounts report detailing the public funds received the CUP listed a number of expenses to do with “advertising, propaganda and PPRR” for the October referendum. The report was published by the Accounts and Treasury Auditor of the Catalan Parliament, an independent body that oversees the expenses of the various political groups represented in the Catalan chamber.

Using the information provided in the report, Ciudadanos urged Catalonia’s Public Audit Office to “ascertain, in no more than six months”, whether public funds paid to parliamentary groups had been used to cover referendum expenses after the Constitutional Court had repeatedly warned the Catalan government to refrain from using any budget items to call or stage the independence referendum. Now the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor has taken the matter into his own hands and will determine whether a court must see the case or drop it altogether for lack of evidence.

Determination to turn the probe into a court case

Legal sources within the CUP recognise that the procedures are ticking along fast enough for the case not to be dismissed: “The Prosecutor initiated the investigation on his own accord and, therefore, it is safe to assume that he believes there are sufficient grounds for a criminal case and up to fifteen people have been called to testify already, which proves that it is a comprehensive investigation that will end up in court”. After slamming the State for choosing the path of “a harsh crackdown”, the same sources emphasise that “no funds were spent on the referendum itself, but on the campaign” and that “you cannot group together the finances of staging a vote and the cash spent promoting it”.

The investigation, led by Spain’s National Police, concerns over 400 rallies organised by the CUP across Catalonia, campaign posters printed for the occasion, a book (“Referèndum 2017: la clau que obre el pany” [Referendum 2017: the Key the Unlocks the Door]) and a tv ad (Ara comença el mambo [Now It’s Time to Mambo]) which showed former and current CUP MPs pushing a van off a cliff as a symbol of culminating the independence process. It was all part of the CUP’s campaign titled “Sí. Viure vol dir prendre partit” [Yes. Living means taking a stand] which the radical left, separatist party devised to rally Yes voters in 2017.

The Prosecutor has targeted the CUP’s campaign because the other pro-independence parties (CDC, ERC, Demòcrates and MES) chose not to run one of their own. Their coalition only had to account for a €17,690 invoice paid to Teatre Nacional de Catalunya after a request from Spain’s justice. This expense was incurred in a public event held on 4 July 2017 where the referendum law was unveiled, with then-president Carles Puigdemont and VP Oriol Junqueras in attendance. The CUP lawyers note that “they were not indicted in the Supreme Court’s case [over that expense], nor in the case handled by Court 13, so this would provide an ideal precedent to ask the Prosecutor why the CUP is being charged now”.

The work of CUP members

Eulàlia Reguant, who was a CUP MP in 2017, criticises that fact that the PSOE-Podemos coalition government in Madrid hasn’t eased off the judicialisation of the Catalan independence process. “Under the most progressive Spanish government ever, Catalonia’s political prisoners are still behind bars and now the Public Prosecutor —whose top boss is appointed by the executive branch— has initiated an investigation against the political views and actions of this party. It is a head-on attack against the freedom of expression and political association”, Reguant says, and she adds that “they have convicted those who called the referendum and now they are after those of us who defended and promoted it”. The former CUP MP makes it very clear that they have always been upfront and have never hidden any referendum expenses. “Our party members worked very hard to make the vote possible and part of the public funds we received were spent promoting the referendum”, she remarks.

Lluc Salellas, who was the CUP’s leadership spokesman in 2018, believes that the case is evidence that the CUP went all in so that the referendum would be a success. Salellas, who is now a local councillor, says that “we were the only ones who took the initiative to stage rallies and now they are trying to criminalise that huge effort”. The probe, according to him, confirms “the repressive nature of Spain’s 1978 regime” and “opens a new door for the persecution of political parties”.