Unrest Rattles Spain as Catalonia Protests

Spain’s Supreme Court has sentenced Catalan activists to prison for their role in the illegal 2017 independence referendum. In response, pro-independence Catalans have protested nationwide – raising political tensions ahead of November’s elections

In 2017, Catalonia held a referendum for independence against the express wishes of the Spanish central government. Relations between the government and the would-be independent region have been tense ever since.

The situation came to a head last Monday, when Spain’s Supreme Court handed down sentences to some of the former Catalan leaders behind the referendum after a landmark trial last month. Nine were incarcerated, with sentences ranging from nine to thirteen years for crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds. Former deputy leader of Catalonia, Oriol Junqueras, received the harshest verdict with 13 years in prison. An additional three Catalan activists were found guilty of civil disobedience during the turmoil that followed the illegal referendum. The judges dropped the most serious charges of rebellion – which would have resulted in 25 years behind bars.

These lengthy prison sentences, considered by some as severe and even a violation of human rights, sparked mass protests by Catalans – some of which have evolved into violence. By Sunday, the six days of protests had logged 78 arrests, close to 600 injured people, and damages to the city of Barcelona valued at 2 million euros. Transportation hubs, including Barcelona’s international airport, were shut down due to mass rallies, with over 150 flights having been cancelled by the end of Friday.

Coinciding with a general strike called by pro-independence unions, 525,000 people congregated in the region’s capital on Friday according to Barcelona police. However, what commenced as five peaceful marches that converged on the city centre later escalated into violence. Authorities announced that 207 police officers were injured during the clashes, an estimated 800 rubbish containers were set on fire, and 107 police vehicles were damaged.

Catalan nationalists assert that their region not only has a separate history, but that they send too many resources and too much money to the poorer parts of Spain – a policy controlled by the capital. Catalonia has their own language, parliament, flag, and anthem, and is one of the wealthiest regions in the country.

The Catalan Civil Society has urged local authorities to avoid confrontation, but FC Barcelona, a popular football team, objected to the sentences altogether. “Prison is not the solution”, the group said in a statement. The grassroots pro-independence organisation, called Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), had also called for sit-ins outside the Spanish government’s delegations across Catalonia.

Regional government leader Quim Torra has demanded an immediate return to civility, saying “We condemn violence…We cannot let these incidents happen in our country. This has to stop right now.” Torra has also promised to “advance on the path toward a Catalan republic, without excuses”. Speaking of the 2017 referendum, he said “Holding a referendum is not a crime. It is not even considered a crime in the criminal code.”

Two years ago, Torra’s predecessor Carles Puigdemont, held the vote but fled the country once ousted. Spain is now attempting to extradite him from his self-imposed exile in Belgium for the third time. The Brussel’s prosecutor’s office said that it had received the request, but that it may take weeks to reach a decision.

“We tended to think that this was something impossible in 20th-century Europe; now we see that it is possible”, said Alfred Bosch, Catalonia’s minister for Foreign Action, institutional relations and transparency, to The Washington Post. “Political leaders were condemned to 100 years in jail because they held a vote”, he added. While individual sentences range from nine to thirteen years, with over twelve people jailed, the cumulative length adds up to over a century.

In an open letter published in the Guardian, Puigdemont wrote that without a coherent policy, Spain is backing itself into a corner. “Two years have passed since the repression began, since the dissolution of a democratically elected parliament and the dismissal by decree of a government with a parliamentary majority. In all this time, there has not been a single political proposal put forward by the Spanish government as a constructive alternative to the call for full independence.”

In a televised address, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez praised Supreme Court judges, saying they gave “an example of autonomy and transparency” that has helped to confirm Spain “as one of the best democracies in the world”. But Laura Borras, a separatist lawmaker, called the ruling “profoundly anti-democratic” and a violation of the rights of both politicians and 2 million Catalans who voted for separatist politicians. “This is a ruling that creates irreparable damage”, she said. Junqueras said the ruling was “not justice, but vengeance. This is punishment for all those who live here, in Catalonia and in this society”.

Protestors in Catalonia call for their independence amidst fires and mounting violence. Copyright: Christine Thao Tyler /

Legal Complications

Further complicating the issue is that some of the very same jailed politicians – including Puigdemont and Junqueras – were elected to the European Parliament. Courts have yet to decide whether they will grant immunity to those who won seats last May. The condemned politicians may choose to argue that this sentence violates their fundamental rights and can appeal their case before the Constitutional Court of Spain or the European Court of Human Rights. How they will serve their sentences – if upheld – is also in question. In addition, Junqueras and five other condemned politicians had also originally planned to run in the upcoming national election this November.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Supreme Court confirmed the right of Catalan regional authorities to manage their own prison systems, which means the imprisoned activists may be eligible for parole as soon as next January.

Since the referendum, more than 4,000 companies have moved their headquarters out of the region, including Catalan banks CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell. Acting Economy Minister Nadia Calvino has said Spanish economic growth, which is currently ranked as the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, would have risen faster if not for Catalonia’s bid for independence, which helped to depress the economic upturn.

Meanwhile, current protests have led La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league, to ask the Spanish Football Federation to postpone a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid from October 26th to December 18th.

The Spanish Minister announced that the government had set up a special commission, including the national intelligence agency, to advise on how to manage the situation firmly and proportionately while in concert with other political parties – some of whom desire a much harsher crackdown on the Catalans. “Sanchez must impose direct rule on Catalonia”, said Albert Rivera, leader of liberal party Ciudadanos.

Sanchez has also threatened to once again use emergency powers to restore order and put Catalonia under direct rule from Madrid, as was done back in 2017. He has promised that his government would “guarantee the complete fulfillment” of the sentences, signaling that he would not grant pardons. “The government of Spain will work in the coming days toward guaranteeing public order and protecting our democratic laws as it has always done.”

“The state will always guarantee the rights of those who wish to protest their ideas peacefully”, he said in a public address on Wednesday evening. “But organised violent groups and those who try to break democratic laws will not achieve their aims … The only hope of those violent groups is that we’ll make mistakes and become overexcited and divided. They want us to fall for their provocations and feed a violent spiral.”

Torra has been criticised for inciting civil disobedience, and though he did not explicitly condemn the violence, he did tweet “violence does not represent us”. Earlier on Wednesday, the nine jailed Catalan leaders issued a joint plea to the people for peaceful mass protests.

This unrest comes right on the cusp of Spain’s fourth election in as many years, and does not bode well for the Socialists in recent polls – especially if the situation continues to escalate. Secession has increased tensions in an already fractured political landscape. There are two political parties in the Spanish parliament that support Catalan independence, though how these protests will affect their standing in Parliament remains up in the air.

“It’s either going to get the pro-independence political parties more votes, or people will come to the conclusion that we’ve been through this now, we have a sentence, and they won’t get votes”, said William Chislett, an analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank in Madrid. “Which way it’s going to go is anybody’s guess.”

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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