The footage showing Oriol Junqueras, Joaquim Forn and other political prisoners in Spain’s Estremera jail is a tremendously valuable piece of reporting. Even if the images are painful to watch for their families and friends, there is a silver lining in that they can help us all to understand what we mean when we talk about Catalonia’s abnormal political situation. Watching grown men who are educated, decent and honest, people who have held high office, now deprived of their freedom, taken away from their families and forced to spend up to sixteen hours a day in their cells is something that leaves an unforgettable impression. And that is precisely what we need: we mustn’t forget the daily lives of these men and women whose freedom has been taken away.
It is all the more difficult to stomach when we consider that this punishment is preemptive, has been going on for months and the judicial enquiry has been shambolic. But we cannot just refer to them in humanitarian terms. Whether you like it or not, it is very relevant that the accused are former government officials, independence supporters, accessories to the self-determination referendum of October 1 and everything that stems from that. Therefore, they are political prisoners and they have not been released yet because the Spanish justice believes that they have not shown enough explicit regret for their political views; this mindset is inadmissible in a democracy and the last elections on December 21 rejected it unequivocally.
Being held in pre-trial custody combines several punishments in one. Firstly, you lose your freedom, which is a basic right. But there is also the uncertainty of not knowing when the nightmare will end, being far from family and friends (an act of cruelty, courtesy of Spanish justice), the daily grind which can easily lead to despair and hopelessness in people who were used to having extremely busy days filled with intellectually stimulating experiences. And last, but not least, there is the invisibility, which is the opposite of public shaming. For a criminal being exposed to public shame is an additional humiliation. For a political prisoner, in contrast, the greatest risk to be dead as far as media and society are concerned. Catalonia’s prisoners were in the spotlight when they were jailed. People paid tribute to them in one of the largest demonstrations of the last decade. They are still remembered in hundreds of Catalan towns and villages by support groups who are tirelessly dedicated. But, truth be told, Junqueras, Forn, Turull, Forcadell, Romeva, Bassa, Rull, Sànchez and Cuixart have no access to cameras and microphones. They are voiceless and their faces have been fading away from media, replaced by the yellow ribbons that Ciudadanos leader Inés Arrimadas finds so polluting.
An additional punishment
The prisoners cannot voice their views or exercise their political responsibilities unless it is by proxy. This is a further punishment which Catalan exiles haven’t experienced. Carles Puigdemont and his associates have the right to speak in public and they exercise it at length. They remain personally present in the political debate. And that is a good thing. It is good for them and good for their cause.
A few weeks ago someone asked me how come we no longer poked fun at Junqueras on Polònia [the humorous political satire show on Catalonia’s public broadcaster]. The question has two answers, one technical, the other emotional. On a technical level, every parody needs a reference in current events and Junqueras’ face no longer features on the news. Emotionally, the team that puts together the show cannot muster the courage to make fun —often rather shamelessly— of characters who are in jail for political reasons and cannot watch our programme. Besides, viewers themselves would be put off. “Sure, but by doing that you make them increasingly invisible” came the answer. And that is true, but for a comedy programme in this case there is no good course of action.
Either way, there is no doubt that the footage which ARA obtained is a crack in the prison walls, a first victory against the invisibility forced upon political leaders who are experiencing an unfair punishment. It is gratifying to see them sharing their knowledge with other inmates, writing, keeping each other company and joining in the shared chores modestly but with all their greatness. Now we know a little more about their reality and how urgent it is for the new Spanish government to put an end to this democratic shame. Let’s hope that this extremely valuable footage contributes to that. Free the political prisoners!