It is a day of anger, a day of sorrow, a day of lost potential, a day of betrayal.
Today in Spain, the supreme court sentenced nine political and cultural leaders in Catalonia to sentences between 9 and 13 years in prison, with political ineligibility over the same periods, after two years in “preventive detention,” for what? For wanting to vote.
For all the hype about separatists and an independent Catalan republic, the charges, which included “sedition” and “rebellion,” hinged around the fact that these people organised a referendum two years ago on Catalan independence – a vote. Yes, the Catalan parliament made a unilateral “declaration of independence,” but it was purely symbolic. They declared the republic, then suspended the declaration. The proclamation was never, in fact, “proclaimed,” i.e. published in the official bulletin. It therefore had no legal effect, even from the point of view of pro-independence legislators and ministers.
What went down on October 1, 2017
- I was present at one of the polling places – a school near my home – for the October 1 referendum when the police arrived. A peaceful crowd, gathered to vote (I was not eligible, as I’m not a Spanish citizen, but came to support my family members) was patiently lined up outside the school. There were long delays to access the voting tables. Since the Spanish government did not give access to voting lists, a system of on-site ID verification was put in place. Hackers for the central government worked to block the Catalan government’s voter registry servers, while counter-hackers at the poling stations worked feverishly to open IP addresses ahead of them. It was like a TV cyber-crime series, only in real life.
Police arrived at this school, pushed people around (myself included), and broke down the door of the school with a battering ram to remove ballot boxes – objects that can only be described as dangerous and seditious.
Roughing up a dangerous young voter with Down’s Syndrome
Source: both photos are extracted from my video on that day.
- My wife was in the school patio, calming children who were terrified. My daughter was working the voting tables, and was shoved to the ground by police. She was slightly injured – nothing serious. But in other poling stations, people were deliberately harmed by police. Outside, where I was, the crowd chanted, “Som gent de pau” – “we are peaceful people.”
- One of the headmasters of a primary school called my wife, the school inspector, in tears – her school was also being used as a poling station, and police systematically went from classroom to classroom smashing the children’s work – because, of course, it was the product of “indoctrination” and no doubt dangerous.
- And yet, it was the political leaders promoting a peaceful vote who were arrested and charged with “violent” rebellion.
These are facts that I have first hand knowledge of. There are lots more that have been reported and witnessed by hundreds or even thousands of people, but none of the Spanish media will publish their stories.
The Trial Outcome
At the trial of the Catalan political leaders, videos showing police violence were not permitted to be shown or introduced into evidence, but police videos were. The prosecution was given much more time to prepare and deliver its summation than the defence. Many more such irregularities took place.
Today, the sentence was handed down. The court ruled that there was “insufficient proof” of violence to justify conviction on the crime of rebellion, but that sedition had indeed been demonstrated. This despite the fact that it is in no way illegal to organise a referendum in Spain (it was until 2005, when the Zapatero government removed it from the penal code).
Sedition is an ordinary crime, unlike rebellion, which is a crime against the constitution. The court muddied the waters, in its decision, with regard to constituted evidence of violence. The court seemed to make jurisprudence (though technically there is no such thing under Spanish law) that violence is not necessary for sedition to occur. However, the judges were not at all clear on this point, and it would seem that they were stretching, so that they could justify the harsh sentences they brought down (again – 9-13 years).
Numerous international NGO’s are initiating petitions and demands to overturn these sentences, on the basis that it is anti-democratic to imprison political leaders for their ideas. The judges have insisted that the leaders were not condemned for their ideas, but for their actions: Organising a vote.
No separation of Powers
The Spanish constitution looks like a reasonable democratic document at first blush. But Spain is far from being a true democracy. For example, high court judges, including justices of the constitutional court, are named directly by committees of political parties, and regional electoral commissions are a mixture of magistrates and members of the two political parties with the highest number of seats in the given jurisdiction. It should be obvious from this that any real notion of separation of powers is an illusion.
When the Spanish government says it has no influence over court decisions, and that justice is independent of the government, keep this in mind.
No Variation of Power
The Partido Popular (“People’s Party”), in power from 2011-2018, thus, during the time of the referendum crisis in Catalonia, was a re-foundation, in 1989, of the Alianza Popular (People’s Alliance), which was led and founded by Manuel Fraga, former Interior Minister in Franco’s dictatorship. They have alternated in power, since the 1978 constitution, with the Socialist Workers’ Party, a more-centre-than-left party, despite its name.
The way power is distributed in Spain is through large families. These are generally old, seigniorial families that have a sense of entitlement to Spain – it’s their property, and they want to make sure everyone knows it. These large families make sure that in every generation, some of its members go into the Partido Popular (PP) and others to the Socialists (PSOE). In other words, no matter who wins the election, these oligarchs actually hold the power.
The PP was found guilty of profiting from kickbacks in a number of scandals, most notably the Gürtel case and the Bárcenas case. These involve money laundering, tax evasion, bribery, etc. Not only were individuals implicated, but the PP as an organisation. Over 100 people have actually been convicted by the courts in these scandals, yet none are actually serving prison sentences. Meanwhile, leaders who want to vote were held in jail for two years without being convicted of anything, for the dangerous crime of wanting to vote.
The Zapatero government (PSOE) had negotiated a new statute of autonomy for Catalonia in 2006. This statute was voted by the national parliament of Spain, and by the Catalan legislature. It was also ratified by a (legal) referendum of the Catalan electorate. Starting in 2008, the PP attacked over 40 clauses of the democratically ratified statute in the constitutional court. In a 2012 ruling, the court overturned most of the clauses attacked by the PP.
Ever since then, the Spanish government has taken an exclusively juridical and punitive approach to dealing with Catalan grievances, polarising the country and Catalonia itself. The announcement today of the verdicts and sentences was met with satisfaction by the current president (PSOE) Pedro Sanchez. The Catalan leadership has rejected the sentence as “vengeance, not justice.” Spontaneous movements of civil disobedience have occurred all during the day, blocking Barcelona’s airport and train station, and numerous roads and highways. A contingent even went to block the Madrid airport.
Catalan resistance will not stop easily. People will be in the streets, and they will vote (there are national elections November 10, 2019). How sad, though, that real dialogue could not be opened, and that the problems of Catalonia could not move from confrontations in the street to negotiations in the conference room.