Europe says enough

Pedro Sánchez publicly announced the (conditional) pardons for the nine jailed Catalan independence leaders in the Liceu opera house on June 21. The reason the Spanish prime minister gave for the pardons is to facilitate social coexistence. Generosity and courage was the narrative. There was no questioning of the Supreme Court’s ruling, or the conviction for sedition – proposed by the Spanish government’s own state prosecutor – or the violation of fundamental rights. “We are where we are,” Sánchez quoted Miquel Martí i Pol, almost with an improper appropriation of his poem ’Ara mateix’ and the intention behind the poet’s words. Sánchez stressed his government’s benevolence in launching a new phase of concord. Hours later, Europe amended much of Sanchez’s “we are where we are” and made it clear that pardons were not enough.

The timing of Sánchez’s announcement was designed to soften the blow that was to come: a vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the situation of the imprisoned Catalan leaders and of Kurd leaders jailed in Turkey. The Council of Europe, an organisation of 47 countries with the aim of defending democracy and human rights in Europe, voted by a majority – 70 votes for, 28 against and 12 abstentions – in favour of a report drawn up in the past two years by Latvian Socialist MP, Boriss Cilevics. The report’s demands are clear: the release of the prisoners, the withdrawal of the European Arrest Warrants for exiled former president Carles Puigdemont and his ex-ministers abroad, and an end to the judicial persecution of the Catalan independence movement. The report also called the sentences disproportionate and demanded reform of the crimes of sedition and rebellion so they cannot be used again to pursue political dissidents. The report questions the use of the judiciary against the independence movement and the interpretation by Spanish courts of the rights and freedoms of expression, and by extension those of assembly and demonstration.

The “disproportionate penalties” given to the independence leaders cast doubt on Spain’s democratic credentials, said Cilevics in his speech defending his report. Only Spanish MPs and senators voted against – with the exception of ERC senator Laura Castel, Antón Gómez-Reino from Podem, and PNB’s Nerea Ahedo – along with Turkish representatives and MPs from Azerbaijan, with most abstentions coming from the Russians. The report does not endorse the independence process, but focuses on the punishments and persecution of the independence movement.

Attempts by Spanish MPs, left and right, to minimise the effects of the report and try to exclude references to the persecution of the exiles and the others were futile and none of these amendments were approved. Every intervention from the ranks of the conservative PP party aimed to focus attention on the idea of corruption and the sentences for the misuse of public funds, while the Socialists stuck to the mantra of the division of powers to question the report. This would later also be the response of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describing some of the Council’s recommendations as inconsistent and arguing that it is not up to the government to withdraw European Arrest Warrants or file lawsuits, and the fact that the government had respected the decision of the courts shows the strength of Spanish democracy.

It is true that it’s not the government’s place to give orders to the judiciary, yet the statement is also disingenuous. The Council’s recommendations bind not only Sánchez’s executive but all the state powers equally, as all parties are obliged to respect the European Convention on Human Rights, of which Spain is a signatory. And the Council warns that fundamental rights have been violated in the persecution of independence leaders and calls for the situation to be rectified. The executive, the legislature, courts, prosecutors and the Court of Auditors are all addressed. What will Spanish MPs do when the report on the situation of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is also being investigated by the Council’s Legal Affairs Committee, is put to the vote? Will they appeal to the independence of Russian courts? And with the Spanish government’s argument about the separation of powers, they should also have questioned, as they did with the Cilevics’ report, the request by the head of European diplomacy and former Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to release Navalny.

So far, all statements by international or European bodies regarding the prisoners have been seen by Spain as interference. Maybe Don Quixote still sees giants where there are windmills. The Catalan legal association Àgora Judicial summed things up clearly on Twitter: “It’s becoming quite unlikely that the United Nations, Amnesty International, the German and Belgian courts and now the Council of Europe are all wrong.”


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