Towards the end of last month, the Catalan Nine were pardoned and released from jails in which they had spent between three and four years, having been judged guilty of misuse of public funds, disobedience and sedition for having organised a referendum on Catalan independence on October 1st, 2017. (In the case of Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, who were civic leaders at the time of their arrest, their ‘sedition’ consisted of standing on a trashed patrol car - they asked for permission - and asking a furious crowd to go home, even as members of the Civil Guard ransacked the Catalan Ministry of the Economy looking, in vain, for ballot boxes). For your average European bystander, informed by his or her average European correspondents in Madrid, these pardons not only demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that Spain is a fully functioning democracy but might even mark the end of the Catalan conflict.
Well, not quite. The pardons carry conditions: none of the recently released can hold political office of any kind until 2030 at the earliest, and the pardons can be revoked - and those pardoned, rejailed - if they commit a serious crime. And what does that mean, exactly? Nobody knows, except the not-unbiased judges of the Supreme Court. Cuixart, for instance, may conceivably make a public statement in favour of organising another referendum, and just those few words might be enough to send him back to the slammer before you could say Lluís Companys.
And although these nine people have been legally sprung from custody, there are three thousand other people facing jail sentences or massive fines for taking part in pro-independence demos or simply for having held posts in the Catalan government from 2011 onwards. For example, Marcel Vivet, a 27 year old man from Badalona, has just been given five years for taking part in a 2018 protest against a homage (organised by a police trade union) for those members of the Spanish National Police who had done such a good job of breaking into polling stations and beating voters bloody; accused of disturbing the peace and hitting a Catalan policeman’s right wrist, there is no visual evidence against Vivet (but there are serious problems with the police testimony).
On the other hand, something called the Court of Auditors is now demanding a total of nine million euros from various former Catalan officials accused of having used public monies to promote Catalonia abroad, although not a single Spanish law or legal pronouncement has declared this to be illegal. But the Court of Auditors doesn’t give a tinker’s bottom burp about that, because none of its members are judges, but rather party political appointments (seven have been chosen by the Popular Party, four by the Socialist Party) who work together like one big family, literally: of its 700 employees, a hundred have family connections to high-ranking Spanish civil servants or to presidents of the institution, including two cousins of the current president, a brother of a former Prime Minister of Spain (Aznar), and the wife and sister-in-law of one of the current Councillors. When imposing fines on Catalan officials - such as the four million euros which they expect the former Catalan Economy minister, Andreu Mas-Collell, to cough up (thirty-three Nobel prize-winning economists have signed a petition in protest at this attempt to ruin their highly respected colleague) - the Court of Auditors doesn’t follow due process of any kind. With allies like that, the Spanish government can afford to pardon a few political prisoners.
But why did it decide to do so now? Partly because it’s been slapped over the wrist during the last couple of years by all the principal human rights organisations, as well as various organisms belonging to the UN and the Council of Europe (which in its last report described the Spanish judiciary as being similar in its behaviour to that of Turkey); and partly because before the current administration’s term of office comes to an end the European Court of Human Rights will almost certainly declare the trial of the Catalan Nine to be null and void (and inhumane) on the grounds that it was used not to punish genuine crimes but to defuse a political movement. That would have involved not only the immediate release of the prisoners, but would have allowed them full political rights and entitled them to demand compensation. In a state in which over 60% of the population think that even the recent conditional pardons should not have been made, that would have been a catastrophe for the Spanish Socialist Party. Whereas for the state’s judges and auditors it would have been nothing worse - as has been the case with other international censures of their handiwork - than water off a very slippery duck’s back.