Political prisoners in Spain: when will it end?

By refusing to address the Catalan issue politically, Spain has merely made the problem worse

This Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the arrests of Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural, and Jordi Sànchez, the former president of the Catalan National Assembly —and currently the leader of the Junts per Catalunya group in the Catalan parliament. Both grassroots leaders have an immaculate, peaceful, democratic track record as civil society activists behind them, and their civic commitment makes them upstanding members of society. Any society would be proud of these two people. They are European and pro-Europe. And yet they have been held on remand for a year and stand accused of rebelling against Spain, a crime which involves violence. No, you didn’t misread that: Cuixart and Sànchez will be put on trial over an alleged violent conduct which they have never, ever engaged in. That would go against their own principles and their very nature. The truth is, they are held in prison because of their views. That is why they are political prisoners.

There are political prisoners in 21st century Spain, a western European country in its own right and an EU member state, with a democratic path forged after the end of the Franco regime. This is a most serious anomaly, as Amnesty International pointed out only yesterday, when it called for the immediate release of both Jordis. The idea of Catalan independence is indeed hard to grasp in Europe, but it is even harder to understand why those who strive for independence democratically should be kept in jail. In a democracy you should be allowed to argue for any political idea, particularly one that is so deeply rooted in democratic tradition as asking the Catalan people in a referendum whether they wish to be independent or not. When you criminalise that sort of demand, you are criminalising the very essence of democracy.

Spain’s stubborn refusal to deal politically with Catalonia’s demand of a referendum on her future is making the problem increasingly worse. It is putting Catalan and Spanish society under a huge strain, it is a hurdle for the governments in Barcelona and Madrid, it is radicalising the political actors and hurting the economy —even deliberately, which was unheard of. A political problem cannot be resolved in a court of law. Political work is conducted in Parliament and through the ballot. When a political matter is thrown into the arms of the judiciary, the legal machine coughs and splutters, as shown by the flagrant contradiction between Spain’s justice and the rulings of courts in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the UK, which have all turned down the extradition requests issued against the Catalan political exiles.

Over 70 per cent of Catalans do not understand why the Jordis and the other political prisoners remain in prison, a percentage that far exceeds those who support independence. There is a unanimous feeling that this is not the way forward. Spain has made the problem worse and now it has become very serious. Ultimately, it is a problem brought on by a fear of freedom.

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