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Spain to pardon jailed Catalan separatists on Tuesday

Spain's government will on Tuesday pardon the jailed Catalan separatists behind a failed 2017 independence bid, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said.

SPAIN pardon separatist politicians
Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

“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”.

Pro-independence demonstrators gather during a protest as Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez delivers his speech at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on June 21, 2021.Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP


 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.

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POLITICS

Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the
frontier.

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.

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