Prime minister Pedro Sánchez this week. / AFP

Style over substance

Sánchez's new offence, like many of his initiatives, lacks any real substance

Mark Nayler
MARK NAYLER

Pedro Sánchez's latest stunt is a tweak to the two-hundred-year-old crime of sedition, of which most of the ringleaders of the 2017 referendum on Catalan independence (1-O) were found guilty. The new offence, punishable by up to five years in prison rather than the maximum of fifteen for sedition, will be called "aggravated public disorder". Catalonia's pro-independence president Pere Aragonès praised the move as a vital step in "dejudicialising" the conflict between Madrid and Barcelona; but his self-exiled predecessor and the orchestrator of 1-O, Carles Puigdemont, saw through the reform: "[Sedition] isn't being repealed: they've changed its name and announced a reduction in the sentence".

Like a lot of Sánchez's initiatives, this one sounds progressive, modernising, generally promising. But upon scrutiny it disintegrates, lacking as it does any real substance. Sánchez's flagship reforms are political mirages: at first glance encouraging but in reality a letdown.

The key element of the crime of sedition was the use of force or violence in a public uprising, which is precisely why its application to the organisers of 1-O seemed inaccurate (as TV news footage showed at the time, violent clashes on the day of the vote were mostly caused by heavy-handed riot police). The new legislation stipulates a sentence of three to five years for people in public office who, "acting in a group and with the goal of threatening the public peace", are found guilty of "acts of violence or intimidation...well suited to seriously affecting public order".

Retrospective speculation is always risky, but in this case it is illuminating. If in 2019 Spain's Supreme Court found 1-O's orchestrators guilty of sedition, it could just as easily have found them guilty of "aggravated public disorder", had the crime existed then. The only material difference would have been in the length of their sentences, which couldn't have been for more than five years (in reality, Catalonia's former vice president, Oriol Junqueras, received the harshest sentence of thirteen years). But given that all of the condemned separatists actually did serve 3.5 years behind bars - starting with a very questionable period of pre-trial detention and lasting until their partial pardons in June last year - there would have been no major difference in how events played out.

Can we imagine Catalan separatists back in 2019 being grateful that the architects of 1-O 'only' received sentences of five years rather than thirteen? No. They would have made the same objections as they did to a trial that hinged on accusations of sedition: that the referendum's organisers were not guilty of aggravated public disorder in the first place, and that any jail time was therefore excessive. Catalan separatists - or indeed anyone who thinks that 1-O's ringleaders were treated unfairly by a politicised judiciary - have little to celebrate about the sedition law reform: it's a cruel mirage, a case of style over substance.