Catalan leaders remain in jail year after independence referendum

Relatives of exiled and jailed political leaders are disappointed at dialogue efforts and consider taking cases to ECHR.

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    Catalan separatists stand face police officers as another group marches in support of the Spanish police units who tried to prevent the independence referendum [Jon Nazca/Reuters]
    Catalan separatists stand face police officers as another group marches in support of the Spanish police units who tried to prevent the independence referendum [Jon Nazca/Reuters]

    A year after the October 1 referendum on seceding from Spain, Catalonia is no closer to independence, and many of the figureheads of the movement remain in jail.

    The unauthorised poll produced a "yes" vote but saw leaders of the independence movement either imprisoned or exiled. It was the country's largest political crisis since it began its transition to democracy in 1975.

    At least nine politicians and civil society leaders remain in jail and others are in exile. Their loved ones told Al Jazeera the political fallout has been profound, both inside and out of Spanish prisons.

    Carme Forcadell, the former president of the Parliament of Catalonia, was jailed in March for her role in the vote.

    Her husband, Bernat Pegueroles, said: "At first, my wife didn't suspect she would be arrested, but later on, she packed a bag and always had it at hand, as if she knew that she'd be gone soon.

    "In the beginning, she wasn't coping well [in prison] and had to take anti-depressants. My wife went from being a very active person to not being able to do anything in a small, enclosed space. It had a huge impact on her."

    Spain's 1978 constitution says the country is "indivisible".

    Madrid charged Catalan leaders with rebellion and sedition for their secessionist efforts.

    Protests against imprisonment

    Pedro Sanchez, the new Spanish prime minister, is more conciliatory than his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, but he, too, has rejected calls to intervene and free the prisoners, saying he has no control over Spain's independent judiciary.

    Sanchez became prime minister in June after Rajoy lost an unrelated confidence vote.

    The Catalan government also underwent changes, with separatist Joaquim Torra replacing Carles Puigdemont as the acting president of Catalonia since May.

    After the referendum, Madrid used Article 155 of the Constitution of Spain to suspend the region's autonomous powers and impose direct rule.

    You can't start a dialogue with people in jail.

    Alba Puig, daughter of Lluis Puig

    After fresh elections were held three months ago and a new regional administration was formed, the Spanish government lifted Article 155.

    "In the current political climate, it is very unlikely that Sanchez will run the risk of making any move that could increase the chances of the prisoners being released," Xavier Cuadras-Morato, an associate professor of economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, who has written extensively on the subject of secession, told Al Jazeera. 

    Alba Puig, the daughter of Lluis Puig, the Catalan minister of culture in exile in Brussels, blasted efforts at dialogue between Spain and Catalonia.

    Puig accompanied Puigdemont, who also remains in Brussels, when he fled to the city on October 30 last year. 

    Family members are eyeing the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as the eventual solution, but the process may take years. 

    "We are prepared," said Puig. "Our other option is waiting for 20 years for the charges to expire".

    She added: "You can't start a dialogue with people in jail".

    Dismissed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is now in exile in Brussels [Reuters]

    The issue has reverberated throughout the region, with "liberty for the political prisoners" posters and yellow ribbons, a symbol of Catalan independence, hung on Barcelona's balconies.

    However, rights groups such as Amnesty International have refrained from using the term "political prisoners", saying there is no generally accepted definition of the term in international law.

    The annual celebration of the Catalan National Day or "La Diada" on September 11 was dedicated to the imprisoned and exiled leaders. 

    But they are not just remembered on La Diada. Every week, several hundred people gather to sing, read poetry and protest for the release of the prisoners throughout Barcelona and in front of the prisons where the leaders are jailed.

    Each week, between 200 and 500 people gather in front of Lledoners, a men's prison 70km from Barcelona where seven of the nine leaders are detained, and sing for them.

    The two female prisoners, Carme Forcadell and Dolors Bassa, are staying in two other prisons that are also visited weekly by supporters.

    The prisoners communicate with the crowd by waving a yellow scarf out of the window or turning the lights on and off. 

    Carme Forcadell, the former president of the parliament of Catalonia, was jailed in March for her role in the vote. Her husband, Bernat Pegueroles, said she was depressed at the start of her imprisonment [Sergio Perez/Reuters]

    "I think it's a problem for Spain that there are political prisoners," said Susanna Barreda, the wife of Jordi Sanchez, president of the Catalan National Assembly, a civic group that has led the campaign for secession.

    Sanchez was imprisoned in October 2017.

    "It's the first point that should be addressed in any political solution," she told Al Jazeera.

    Barreda and Sanchez have three children. They can visit him once a month, sometimes twice a month, for 90 minutes. 

    "My children all take it differently. The eldest son has really taken the cause to his heart," Barreda said. "My daughters are finding it very tough and can barely speak about it."

    She said there have also been financial consequences for the family. 

    "We went from two salaries to one straight away and then we went through all our savings."

    But they were supported by the Catalan Association of Civil Rights (ACDC), which was set up for the families of those in jail or in exile.

    Cofounded by Alba Puig, ACDC also sends members across Europe to educate others on the situation in Catalonia, and recently released a children's book with 11 short stories about civil rights.

    Pegueroles, Forcadell's husband, said he found it difficult to understand the moral and legal reasoning behind the detentions.

    "I asked my wife's defence lawyer if the judges can sleep at night; if they're not ashamed of what they're doing," Pegueroles said.

    "His answer was: 'They're not ashamed. They sleep well because they know they're saving Spain.'"

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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