Prison as political tool

Yes, prison had to play a part in our peaceful and democratic struggle

"Being in prison is never good, but an ordinary person, with a sense of justice, can endure it and come out stronger and more convinced. You have to lose your fear. You'll go through periods of discouragement and depression. It's possible, or even probable, that some days you'll cry from grief. But don't worry, it's completely normal."

I received these reflections, along with a list of ten tips, the first time I was called to testify last November. They came from Pepe Beúnza, the first political (not religious) conscientious objector to have ever been imprisoned in Spain.

Pepe Beúnza was sent to prison in 1971 and he remained there for over two years. He did it as a means of protest. Today nobody doubts that if thousands of objectors over the years collapsed the system, eventually bringing about the end of compulsory draft in Spain, it is largely due to his decision (and that of others) to go to prison. I will always feel indebted to him.

Pepe was a teacher in the Torre Marimon School, in Caldes de Montbui, where my father was the Principal and where, in fact, we lived. He introduced me to the world of pacifism and the defense of human rights. Under his mentorship, I became a conscientious objector myself and started on a path that I have never abandoned, in favor of peace, democracy, and freedom.

Twisting the criminal code to repress political views is not acceptable

When I received his message, some of my colleagues in the Catalan government and I were considering how best to face the scenario, well aware that the Spanish government would take things to their final consequences. I don't believe that what we did can be considered a criminal act, and I am willing to stand by it whenever and wherever necessary. But it is largely due to Pepe that I didn't hesitate to make the decision. Yes, prison could and, in fact, had to play a part in our peaceful and democratic struggle.

Pepe Beúnza went to prison in order to expose the weaknesses of a State that had already begun to show signs of the fragility of a moribund regime. In the same way, our imprisonment must serve to shine a light on the weakness of a failed democratic project and a country with important legal, and especially political, shortcomings.

You were right, Pepe, things are not good here. It is sad and discouraging, living far from your family and friends, and every time that they have to travel more than 1,400 km to see you, it is very hard. But don't be sorry, our prison terms are exposing the direction that the judicial response to the Catalan question is taking, which is in no way that which a healthy democracy should take. On the contrary, this response undermines the very principles that underpin democracy, with the danger of bringing it to the brink of collapse.

This journey will be long and hard. Rebellion, sedition, coup d'état, violence, terrorism... we can feel how institutional impunity is expanding and how part of the media, police, and judicial system are protecting it. We also feel the loneliness, and how a significant part of society is still willing to stay silent and look the other way. But in these times we are also feeling solidarity, commitment, and empathy, and we have learned many things. Among these things are not to hide, not to renounce dialogue, and to instead condemn injustice, persevere, and overcome our difficulties.

On this road, prison must be an instrument to show everyone who believes in democracy that twisting the criminal code to repress political views is not acceptable, that political ideas cannot be fought by judicial coercion or the violation of rights and freedoms, and that avoiding politics and opting instead for repression will never solve anything.

When the people called to safeguard justice conclude that the ends justify any means, the responsibility to confront this oppression falls on all who believe in democracy. And, as Pepe taught me, my imprisonment, our imprisonment, must serve to encourage them to lose their fear of condemning what is wrong, and to never accept these excesses and the dangers that they entail.

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