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MADRID – The Spanish government on Tuesday agreed to pardons a group of separatists who are serving long sentences for participating in a failed attempt to create a breakaway state in the northeastern region of Catalonia, a large olive branch in a conflict that led to the Country has long divided.
The pardons approved by the Spanish cabinet and announced at a press conference redeemed Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s recent promises to reconcile with a separatist movement that rocked Spain with an independence referendum in 2017. Spain’s courts ruled the voting illegal and the government ordered crackdowns, confiscated ballot papers and even sent riot squads to beat many eligible voters.
Officials also ordered wide-ranging arrests, including those of the nine politicians and independence activists who were originally sentenced to nine to 13 years in prison, including for sedition and misuse of public funds. The prisoners were arrested about three and a half years ago.
In an announcement from the Prime Minister’s Palace, Mr Sánchez offered a conciliatory tone that marked a departure from the government’s earlier confrontational stance towards prisoners. He said the pardon was in the public interest.
“It’s the best for Catalonia, it’s the best for Spain,” he said.
However, the government did not grant the prisoners a full pardon, but upheld the prohibition of holding political office for some of them who had previously been politicians.
Among those pardoned were Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy leader of Catalonia; Raül Romeva, who was in charge of foreign affairs for the former Catalan government; Jordi Sànchez, who led a group for independence; and Jordi Cuixart, the president of Omnium Cultural, a Barcelona-based cultural organization.
The pardon decision was not without risk for Prime Minister Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, who fends off criticism for the gentle treatment of the separatists, whom many Spaniards regard as little more than lawbreakers. Separatists claim they are political prisoners.
After Mr Sánchez began promoting the idea of pardons more seriously this month, three major political parties – voters from central Spain, right and far right – demonstrated in Madrid in a protest that was attended by an estimated 25,000 people.
Surveys show that most Spaniards reject the pardons.
“The pardons are a price to pay for those who destroyed families who broke the law,” said Inés Arrimadas, a Catalan politician who heads the centrist civil party and led a group of demonstrators. “It is a humiliation for those in Catalonia who continue to abide by the constitution and obey the law.”
Ms Arrimadas noted that until recently Mr Sánchez and members of his government claimed that the separatists should answer for their crimes, but that his party now needs the support of Catalan nationalists to pass legislation.
However, many observers suggest that the time may be right for a government that wants to win hearts and minds in Catalonia.
Mr Sánchez’s socialists won the most seats in a regional vote in Catalonia in February after years of lagging behind in elections. Independence parties eventually formed a government without them, but sided with a moderate leader, Pere Aragonès, who proposed a dialogue with Madrid instead of pushing for another referendum.
Joaquim Coll, a historian and columnist in Barcelona, said that in the years since the 2017 referendum, the dynamism of the independence movement has weakened across the region, meaning the prisoners’ release could be little threat.
“I think from a state perspective,” he said, “it’s a gesture that confirms the state’s victory – the gesture that the winner makes.”
Mr Coll also said that by releasing the prisoners, the government withdrew more hardliners from the independence movement martyrs who could be used to press for another confrontation with Madrid. This gives the moderates in Catalonia more breathing space.
The arrests result from a longstanding conflict over who should rule Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that, in addition to Barcelona, is also home to its own language and independent culture.
After Spain’s courts annulled much of a charter in 2010 that was supposed to give the region more autonomous powers, a regional separatist movement took off.
The 2017 referendum was held following a court ruling that made it illegal. The separatists declared victory despite opinion polls that showed the public was divided on the issue, and Catalonia’s government declared independence – only to suspend the measure and be disbanded by the Spanish government in the wake of the raid.
The next showdown came in the independence leader trial that ruled the news for months. In 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced the group to up to 13 years’ imprisonment for crimes such as sedition and misuse of public funds.
The long sentences baffled many human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, which said detained separatists were political prisoners in the heart of Europe.
Reactions to the pardons were mixed among some members of the independence movement.
“Personally, it will make me happy when you get out of prison,” said Adrià Alsina, a national secretary of the Catalan National Assembly, an independence group whose leader, Mr Sànchez, was among those who received pardons. “But the whole process seems like a huge bad joke.”
Mr Alsina said his goal is not a pardon but a declaration of amnesty from the Spanish government, a declaration that the prisoners have committed no crimes and an agreement to allow a new independence referendum to determine the status of Catalonia.
Even the Conservatives were not happy about the pardons, albeit for different reasons.
“This sends a confusing message to citizens about equity,” said Trinidad Cornejo, who works as an economist in the capital, Madrid. “I’m not saying I’m against it in the future, but I’m not at the moment because little time has passed and they’re not sorry.”
José Bautista contributed to the coverage.