Prison or Martyr? Prisoner Poses a Political Dilemma for Spain

BARCELONA, Spain — Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, a corporation identified in Spain as a lot for its literary prizes as for its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.

However its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be discovered: For the final three and a half years, he has lived in a jail cell.

To the Spanish authorities, Mr. Cuixart is a harmful felony, convicted of sedition for main a rally at a time when he and different separatist leaders had been seeking to set up a breakaway state in the northeastern region of Catalonia. But to his supporters, and within the eyes of many overseas nations, he’s a political prisoner sitting within the coronary heart of Europe.

“They need us to vary our beliefs,” Mr. Cuixart mentioned, talking via a thick pane of glass within the jail guests’ part on a latest afternoon.

Greater than three years have handed for the reason that Catalonian independence motion practically tore Spain aside, and the politicians in Madrid have seemingly received. Plans for secession are largely useless. The sound of pots banging, which had been a fixture of the motion, is never heard at night time now in Barcelona.

However Spain’s leaders, now consumed with battling the coronavirus pandemic, nonetheless have a political downside. To many, Mr. Cuixart and eight other men jailed for sedition are actually martyrs who, based on human rights teams, are being held for nothing greater than voicing and performing on their political beliefs.

For the Spanish authorities — and for Europe as a complete — they’ve additionally turn out to be a diplomatic headache, elevating accusations of hypocrisy towards a area identified for demanding higher democratic freedoms around the globe.

Russia this yr cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the discharge of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition chief. The US lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and calls their jailing a type of political intimidation.

Even lawmakers within the European Union, which Spain is a member of, have raised their plight. When the bloc mentioned holding Hungary and Poland accountable to E.U. rule-of-law requirements, some European lawmakers famous a double normal: Spain, they mentioned, held political prisoners.

The jailings stem from a longstanding battle, nonetheless unresolved, over id, language and who has the best to rule in Catalonia, a area of seven.5 million individuals on the border with France.

In 2017, Catalonia was plunged into chaos when its leaders tried to carry a regional independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish courts. The nationwide authorities in Madrid sent in riot squads, which seized poll containers and even beat a few of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, even though more than half of voters did not cast ballots and polls confirmed that Catalonia was cut up on independence.

Defiant, the Parliament in Catalonia went forward and declared independence anyway — solely to droop its personal declaration earlier than being dissolved by the Spanish government. By that point, Mr. Cuixart had already been arrested and different separatist leaders fled for Belgium.

In 2019, the courts sentenced Mr. Cuixart and eight others to between 9 and 13 years in jail after convicting them of sedition.

“He’s in jail merely for exercising his proper to precise himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish workplace of Amnesty Worldwide, mentioned of Mr. Cuixart.

Arancha González Laya, the Spanish overseas minister, mentioned that this case introduced painful recollections within the nation of different independence actions, together with the killings by the terrorist group ETA, which fought for many years for the independence of the northern Basque area.

“They aren’t political prisoners. These are politicians which have damaged the regulation,” Ms. González Laya mentioned in an interview.

“The query is, do you may have in Spain the flexibility to precise a distinct opinion? Reply: Sure. Do you may have the best to unilaterally determine that you just break up the nation? No,” she added.

However David Bondia, a world regulation professor in Barcelona, mentioned that the Spanish authorities was contemplating an overhaul that may weaken its sedition legal guidelines, one thing he sees as an admission that there had been a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.

Mr. Cuixart’s case was much more problematic from a authorized view. He was the pinnacle of a cultural group, but his sedition trial was carried out below a authorized framework reserved for politicians, Mr. Bondia mentioned, elevating due-process questions.

For Carles Puigdemont, the previous president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the scenario remembers the times of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in concern of persecution.

“For us, this has hit exhausting and introduced us to the previous,” he mentioned.

Mr. Puigdemont, who can also be wished on sedition prices, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, the place he serves within the European Parliament. However his parliamentary immunity was removed in March, permitting for him to be extradited.

The shadow of Franco performed a task within the early days of Omnium, the cultural group that Mr. Cuixart would go on to steer.

It was based in 1961 by a gaggle of businessmen to advertise the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish authorities forbade its use in public. Shortly after, Francoists closed Omnium and the group went underground.

When Mr. Cuixart was rising up on the outskirts of Barcelona within the 1980s, Franco had died and lots of vestiges of his regime had lengthy been swept away. However Mr. Cuixart nonetheless noticed an intolerance towards his tradition.

There was Mr. Cuixart’s title, for one. His first title, Jordi, was the Catalan title of the area’s patron saint, St. George the dragon slayer. However in official paperwork, Mr. Cuixart was registered with the Spanish title Jorge, a standard apply within the nation, which had forbidden registering Catalan first names.

“They noticed distinction as a risk,” he mentioned.

Mr. Cuixart was swept into the world of Catalan letters by an uncle who owned a bookstore that was quickly identified for its literary salons full of poets and political figures. The environment was “a inventive hurricane,” Mr. Cuixart mentioned that may encourage him for many years.

As a younger man, Mr. Cuixart plunged into the world of enterprise, first working in Barcelona factories, then saving to open one in every of his personal. After his profile as an entrepreneur started to rise, he joined Omnium in 1996.

The group had grown since its clandestine days right into a key pressure in Catalan tradition. It revived the Night time of St. Llúcia, an after-dark literary competition in Barcelona that had been banned by Franco, and gave out the St. Jordi Prize for the perfect novel written in Catalan.

Omnium additionally reawakened the nationalist emotions that Mr. Cuixart had felt as a young person.

“Being Catalan was greater than a language and a bloodline,” he mentioned. “It was a call to reside right here and to be right here. That is what made you Catalan.”

In 2010, Spain’s courts threw out a constitution that granted broad powers for self-government, 4 years after it had been approved by voters and the regional Parliament. The transfer introduced widespread anger and separatist flags turned widespread within the countryside.

Quickly, Parliament was discussing a transfer to declare an impartial state, lengthy thought-about a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had turn out to be the president of Omnium, was generally conflicted that his group had additionally joined the independence push — it was a cultural group in any case, not a political one. However in the long run, he mentioned that not becoming a member of would have been standing on the fallacious facet of historical past.

The essential day got here for Mr. Cuixart on Sept. 20, 2017, when the Spanish police, attempting to cease the independence referendum from going down, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry constructing on suspicions that plans for the vote had been being organized there. However an enormous crowd surrounded the placement.

Mr. Cuixart and a pro-independence chief, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They arrange pathways via the gang for officers to enter the constructing and made bulletins that anybody contemplating violence was a “traitor.”

Because the night time wore on, Mr. Cuixart mentioned that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he’s seen on prime of a automobile calling for the gang to disperse. Regardless of jeers from the protesters, most left and Mr. Cuixart mentioned that he then went to mattress.

The vote was held amid the crackdown the subsequent month. However Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there have been no penalties after he dodged a army draft as a younger man. He thought he had little to concern this time round.

However then the fees got here: sedition, one of many highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian prices for exercise at a protest stunned even authorized specialists who mentioned that the sedition legal guidelines — which cowl crimes much less severe than full-out insurrection — had been not often utilized in a rustic.

“I needed to lookup what ‘sedition’ even was,” Mr. Cuixart mentioned.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days on the Lledoners jail, a penitentiary constructed for about 1,000 inmates, and residential to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He mentioned he spent his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who’s towards Catalan independence, mentioned he felt little pity for Mr. Cuixart’s scenario as a result of the separatists introduced it on themselves.

“I don’t forgive them, as a result of they’ve damaged our society,” Mr. Cañas mentioned, including that the independence push nonetheless divided Spanish houses. “I’ve mates I not communicate to over this.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his half, mentioned he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it once more, he mentioned. It was Spain that wanted to vary, he mentioned, not him.

“Sooner or later, Spain goes to must replicate and ask themselves: What are they going to do with me?” he mentioned. “Eradicate me? They’ll’t.”

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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