Protesters during the general strike in Catalonia, Oct 2017, called to protest against the police violence on the day of the referendum. Image: Adolfo Lujan via Flickr
In the final article of our series on Catalonia, Adrià Salvador and Jon Roozenbeek respond to Jose Piquer in light of the increasingly repressive crackdown on pro-independence Catalans, and the absence of condmenation by European institutions. This series has been commissioned by the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge.
After a string of nerve-wracking events surrounding the Catalan independence referendum and ensuing declaration of independence by the Catalan regional parliament in October, the political hurricane seems to be slowly settling in Spain. Most of the Catalan government is either in exile or in prison, its acting government is under Madrid’s control, and candidate after candidate proposed by the Catalan parliament is declared unfit to be inaugurated as president by Spanish courts.
Now, it seems, is the right time for dialogue and rapprochement. In a recent article on In the Long Run, 'Democracy beyond the streets and courts: The need for a Spanish–Catalan compromise’, Jose Piquer argues for ‘a new democratic vision where Spaniards and Catalans live imperfectly together rather than forever apart’. Piquer reminds pro-Unionists that pro-independence sentiments in Catalonia are not necessarily just or justifiable, but they are a force to be reckoned with: ‘There are simply not enough Catalans who believe they should secede from Spain because they are oppressed, but the Catalans who are willing to leave Spain in the absence of a new relationship are too numerous to be ignored’. But present-day Spain, Piquer reminds independentists, ‘is not Francoland’. Its Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, whether you agree with his policies or not, is not a fascist, and Spain remains a democratic member of the European Union.
While we certainly support Piquer’s call for dialogue between Spain and Catalonia, his article neglects to seriously address many of the claims made by pro-independence Catalans regarding instances of police brutality, political imprisonment and a disregard for the separation of powers in Spain.
While it is of course true that Spain, by and large, has functioning democratic institutions and free elections, and has come a long way from the days of Franco, it is wrong to gloss over clear abuses of power on behalf of the Spanish state. Partially thanks to a lack of opposition from the Spanish left and a hesitant Catalan financial elite, the ruling Spanish conservative class is enjoying a degree of control over Catalonia that it hasn’t had since the times of Franco. However, unlike then, Spain also has the enthusiastic support of the EU, while it is clear that the state is currently not wielding its power responsibly.
A prime example of such abuses are the charges of rebellion leveled against Catalan politicians and private citizens as punishment for partaking in the independence referendum. Former President, Carles Puigdemont, for example, was recently arrested in Germany after Spain issued a European Arrest Warrant. Spain sought Puigdemont's extradition on charges including not only abuse of government funds, but also rebellion, which under Spanish law carries up to 30 years in jail. The same is happening to Catalan academic Clara Ponsatí, who is currently in Scotland awaiting extradition for the same charges.
The charge of rebellion is extraordinary, especially considering the fact that the Spanish Criminal Code stipulates that a conviction of rebellion must include evidence of the ‘acute use of force’. In the case of the Catalan referendum, this is certainly not what happened. Puigdemont has repeatedly come out against the use of violence by any means, and the broader Catalan independence movement has been consistently non-violent throughout the years. And in the face of images of Spanish policemen beating up unarmed protesters on referendum day, such charges ring even more hollow.
Police officers and protesters during the referendum on Catalan independence, Oct. 2017. Image: Robert Bonet via Wikimedia Commons
This lack of a violent dimension on the Catalan side was also recognised by the German judge in charge of Puigdemont's extradition case: the former President may be able to be extradited to Spain, but only on charges of misuse of public funds, not rebellion. The German judicial system clearly didn’t feel that the criteria for charging a person with rebellion had been met.
Spain's extraordinary crackdown on pro-independence Catalans is extending beyond the political realm. A few weeks ago, two Catalan private citizens were arrested and charged with terrorism after organising a series of non-violent protests that involved blocking certain roads and railway lines. The terror charges were eventually dismissed, but not for lack of trying by the prosecutors.
Emboldened by the absence of any condemnation by European institutions, the long arm of the Spanish law has also entered the art world: musicians, puppeteers and poets have been prosecuted for ‘inciting terrorism’, or, in more realistic terms, offending the monarchy or coming out in favour of Catalan independence. In February, Ifema, a well-known Madrid-based exhibition centre, removed a work of art depicting Catalan leaders as political prisoners from an international art fair.
Spanish newspapers have followed suit, writing numerous pieces that allege a coordinated conspiracy against the Spanish state controlled by the upper echelons of Catalan society. Attentive readers will notice the similarities with the infamous Causa General of the Franco era.
Most European institutions have remained entirely silent about these clear cases of judicial overreach, despite the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) long history of rulings against the Spanish state for abuse of power against its citizens. A clear example of this is the recent acquittal by the ECtHR of Enric Stern and Jaume Roura, who were sentenced to jail for burning a photograph of the Spanish King back in 2007. Ruling unanimously, the judges said that they were ‘not convinced’ that this act could ‘reasonably be construed as incitement to hatred or violence’. The message from this is clear: Spanish prosecutors are overstepping their boundaries to punish Catalans for expressing their views.
Charging peaceful protesters, artists and politicians who have no history of violence with crimes as serious as terrorism and rebellion is a shameless abuse of power and signals a serious lack of independence on behalf of the Spanish judiciary. As in Monty Python’s famous gag, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition. Until the independence referendum, Catalan politicians often repeated the mantra that Spain’s EU membership meant that it could no longer act like it used to in order to suppress Catalan political will. This turned out to be wishful thinking.
Piquer’s argument that Catalans should stop comparing present-day Spain to the Franco era is at best a straw man. Certainly, the Spanish state is no longer executing writers for publishing in Catalan, as used to be the case. But just because the current repression has not risen to the level of fascism, this doesn’t mean that the Spanish state is functioning like a modern liberal democracy, where the rights of minorities are duly respected. The international community should not pretend that it is.