The nine Catalan separatist leaders who were formally pardoned by central government this week walked free from jail on Wednesday.
Three and a half years after the seven men and two women, including campaign leaders and politicians, headed up the illegal independence referendum in Catalonia in October 2017 they were able to go home, but not before launching a defiant message that their fight for independence will go on.
On Tuesday the Cabinet had approved the highly controversial partial pardons as had been expected and these were then ratified by the Supreme Court.
The prison sentences they all were serving have been cancelled but they remain banned from public office for many years; in the case of Oriol Junqueras, still leader of the left-wing republican ERC party, until 2031.
All nine have vowed to campaign for a full amnesty for their offences, the return of self-exiled colleagues who have yet to stand trial - including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont who lives in Brussels, and to continue the process towards independence.
Their declarations contrasted with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s explanation for granting the pardons. He said the aim was to restore common understanding and a spirit of cooperation.
Oriol Junqueras explained he wanted to put back into politics “all that should never have left politics”, interpreted as his willingness to negotiate.
Another of the freed detainees, Jordi Sànchez, leader of separatist campaign group ANC, said, “We’re coming out with our heads held high and with our hearts set on winning what we couldn’t win through the October 2017 referendum.”
Amid fears in the separatist movement that the pardons may dampen support for their cause, another freed prisoner, Jordi Cuixart, leader of Òmnium Cultural campaigning group, said, “There is no pardon that will keep the Catalan people quiet. We will never be kept quiet.”
The decision to grant partial pardons has caused division within the PM’s PSOESocialist party nationally, with some senior members openly against the idea.
Pedro Sánchez announced the decision to pardon at a meeting with leaders of Catalan society in Barcelona’s ornate Liceu theatre on Monday. He explained that commuting the sentences was “beneficial” and that he wasn’t just taking nine people out of prison but helping millions to start living in harmony again.
Opposition parties pointed out that before coming to power Sánchez had been strongly against issuing pardons.
The conservative PP’s Pablo Casado said that the pardons would only serve to “shield” those involved and they would offend again once freed.
A spokesperson for far-right Vox said, “Pedro Sánchez once again has got on his knees in front of those who incite coups, secessionism and barbarism.”
Legal issues all round
Spanish courts were reported to be sceptical about the pardons. The parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe supported partial pardons but asked Spain to consider reforming legislation on rebellion and sedition that is viewed as having led to overly severe prison sentences for the illegal referendum.
The decision to pardon had been based on lawyers’ reports and a study of each prisoner’s behaviour in jail. Among the recommendations was the “complete removal” of the custodial sentences still left to serve, principally for the offences of sedition and embezzlement.
Those freed had spent three and a half years in jail, less than half the sentences of any of them. Prison is a possibility again if they reoffend.