“Tomorrow, guided by this constitutional spirit of forgiveness, I will propose that the cabinet approve the pardon,” he said during a speech on Monday at a carefully choreographed event at Barcelona’s prestigious Liceu theatre.
Sánchez said his leftist government has “opted for reconciliation” and believes the controversial measure would “pave the way for this path”.
His announcement was met with cries for an amnesty for the jailed separatists from dozens of protesters who gathered outside the theatre, many carrying pro-independence Catalan flags.
Manel Cantero, a 59-year-old teacher, said the separatists needed an amnesty because “there’s nothing to pardon”.
“We exercised a fundamental right,” he told AFP.
The Socialist premier has sought in recent weeks to rally support for the pardons, arguing they are key to overcoming the political impasse over Catalonia’s separatist drive.
Catalonia has been a dominant theme in Spanish politics since the rich northeastern region pressed ahead with a banned independence referendum in 2017 which was marred by police violence.
The referendum was followed by a short-lived declaration of independence, plunging Spain into one of its biggest political crises since democracy was restored in 1975 following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.
‘Desire to forgive’
In 2019, Spain’s Supreme Court convicted 12 Catalan politicians and activists for their role in the independence push, with nine of them handed jail terms of between nine and 13 years.
The ruling triggered days of protests across Catalonia which sometimes turned violent in Barcelona and other cities.
Most Spaniards, 53 percent, oppose the pardons, although 68 percent of Catalans are in favour, according to a survey by the Ipsos polling firm.
The Supreme Court has also opposed the pardons, as do the main opposition parties.
Tens of thousands of people protested in central Madrid on June 13 against the plan to offer clemency.
Many conservatives say Sánchez is motivated mainly by a desire to hold on to power since his minority government relies in part on Catalan separatists to pass legislation in the national parliament.
But Sánchez last week received surprise support for the pardons from Spain’s main business lobby CEOE, which opposes Catalan independence, as well as from the Catalan Catholic Church.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya on Monday defended the planned pardons, calling them “the expression of a society’s desire to forgive”.
Pardons are ‘key’
Analysts said Sánchez was taking a political gamble with the pardons now in the hope that he could overcome any harm to his government’s popularity before national elections, due by January 2024.
“With time, the pardons will seem anecdotal if the economy is doing well,” said Pablo Ferrandiz, a sociologist at Madrid’s Carlos III University.
He recalled that Spain is one of the “main beneficiaries” of the European Union’s 750-billion-euro ($910-billion) coronavirus rescue fund which will start flowing later this year.
It remains to be seen though if the pardons will foster dialogue between Madrid and the Catalan regional government, headed since May by Pere Aragonès, a moderate separatist.
Aragones belongs to the leftist ERC party, which is led by Oriol Junqueras, the prisoner serving the longest sentence of 13 years over his role in the 2017 crisis.
“The pardons are a key element, the key which opens the chains because the situation in Catalonia was totally blocked,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
But he warned the “road will not be easy” as Catalan separatists demand the right to hold an independence referendum, which Sánchez’s government fiercely opposes.
The pardons “will force separatists” to “leave behind them” the failed 2017 independence bid and “propose something” else, added Bartomeus.