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Ending the Criminalisation of the Catalan Political Crisis

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Cira Palli, Ulster University

Like everybody else in Catalonia, I got the news last Monday morning. The Spanish Supreme Court had ruled against the social and political leaders in Catalonia and their demands on the right to self-determination, handing out sentences ranging from nine to 13 years of prison for sedition.

I received the news with sadness. The sentencing has not only unjustly condemned the prosecuted for their political ideology (after the court dropped the charges of embezzlement and rebellion), with shattering consequences for them and their families; but it has also created a legal precedent by which civil rights such as the right to protest, reunion, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, can be brought before tribunals for sedition. This week, the Spanish state has imprisoned democratic leaders, criminalised peaceful political dissidence and civil society movements advocating for civil disobedience, and, once more, it has responded with disproportionate police brutality against protesters.

Sitting in my small apartment in Belfast, I helplessly watch the news of violence and unrest on the streets of the major cities of Catalonia. I wait and hope that these will end soon. I worry that the riots will only feed a narrative of unstoppable violence that the Spanish state is eager to build to transform a political crisis into a problem of public order. I am concerned that this could strengthen the state’s arguments for criminalisation of the actions that are taking place in Catalonia. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that these images of rioting provide juicy material for the media, these have only been a minor part of what has happened in Catalonia these last few days.

Peaceful demonstrations have taken place daily in every city of Catalonia. Thousands and thousands of Catalans have taken the streets regardless as to their political orientation to protest in defence of the fundamental rights slowly being taken away by the Spanish state. The three day Walk for Freedom arrived in Barcelona on Friday, coinciding with the general strike called by the unions. Schools, cultural organisations, companies, shops, sports clubs, public and private institutions have united to protest against the Supreme Court ruling. Els carrers seran sempre nostres! The streets will always be ours, but what next? It is clear that the sentencing represents a breaking point, but the future is uncertain.

In the wake of the sentencing, acting President Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Party (which insist on affirming they are “the left” – rather the left of the right) stated that, recognising the democratic character of Spain and its rule of law, the sentences were to be accepted whether or not one agrees with them. Then he called for dialogue. What kind of dialogue can be expected from a state that for the last nine years have only responded with rejections and repression?

As Antoni Bassas, a highly-regarded political analyst in Catalonia, states, the only response that the Catalan demands have gotten from the Spanish state has been “No”. The State rejected the Catalan Estatut after it was approved by the legislative chambers and then by referendum in Catalonia in 2010. It responded in the negative to the Catalan government's demands for a reform of the financial system. The Spanish state has repeatedly rejected any demands coming from Catalonia for negotiation and dialogue about self-government and self-determination, responding with political oppression, police repression, and criminalisation.

The aftermath of the referendum of the 1st of October in 2017 and the unilateral declaration of independence in La Generalitat, has resulted in an alarming aggravation of the situation in Catalonia. This has included the application of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which dismantled the political powers in Catalonia on 27th October 2017 and which was not lifted until elections took place eight months later. Catalonia has seen preventive imprisonment of two social leaders and seven political leaders. Seven other Catalan politicians have effectively been exiled to different European cities. More than 700 Catalan mayors have been impeached for supporting the referendum and the declaration of independence. Seven commanders of the Catalan police have been sanctioned for disobedience during the referendum on independence. Investigation of teachers in Catalonia wrongly accused of encouraging hate and of indoctrination of students in the classroom is ongoing. These are followed by a very long string of further actions taken by the State against Catalan political and social leaders and Catalan citizens.

This situation requires all institutions and parties - Catalan, Spanish and European - to bring the political crisis back to its political terrain. The current situation calls for the defence of the civil and fundamental rights of the Catalan people, and the total rejection of the criminalisation of civil society and political movements. The first step: freedom for the Catalan social and political leaders.

Cira Palli is a PhD Candidate at the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University

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