Legal or Martyr? A Prisoner Poses a Political Dilemma For Spain

BARCELONA — Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, a company recognized in Spain as a lot for its literary prizes as for its desires of an unbiased 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 have been looking for to arrange a breakaway state within the northeastern area of Catalonia. But to his supporters, and within the eyes of many international 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 almost tore Spain aside, and the politicians in Madrid have seemingly gained. 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 drawback. To many, Mr. Cuixart and eight different males jailed for sedition at the moment are martyrs who, in keeping with 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 an entire — they’ve additionally change into a diplomatic headache, elevating accusations of hypocrisy in opposition to a area recognized for demanding larger democratic freedoms world wide.

Russia this 12 months cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the discharge of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition chief. The USA 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 parliamentarians famous a double customary: Spain, they mentioned, held political prisoners.

The jailings stem from a longstanding battle, nonetheless unresolved, over identification, language and who has the proper to rule in Catalonia, a area of seven.5 million folks 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 despatched in riot squads, which seized poll bins and even beat a few of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, even supposing greater than half of voters didn’t solid ballots and polls confirmed that Catalonia was break 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 authorities. 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 specific himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish workplace of Amnesty Worldwide, mentioned of Mr. Cuixart.

Arancha González Laya, the Spanish international minister, mentioned that this case introduced painful reminiscences 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 legislation,” Ms. González Laya mentioned in an interview.

“The query is, do you might have in Spain the power to specific a unique opinion? Reply: Sure. Do you might have the proper to unilaterally determine that you simply break up the nation? No,” she added.

However David Bondia, a world legislation professor in Barcelona, mentioned that the Spanish authorities was contemplating an overhaul that will 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 top of a cultural group, but his sedition trial was performed 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 state of affairs recollects 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 be wished on sedition fees, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, the place he serves within the European Parliament. However his parliamentary immunity was eliminated in March, permitting for him to be extradited.

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

It was based in 1961 by a bunch 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 Nineteen Eighties, Franco had died and plenty 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 identify, for one. His first identify, Jordi, was the Catalan identify of the area’s patron saint, St. George the dragon slayer. However in official paperwork, Mr. Cuixart was registered with the Spanish identify Jorge, a typical follow within the nation, which had forbidden registering Catalan first names.

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

Mr. Cuixart was swept into the world of Catalan letters by an uncle who owned a bookstore that was quickly recognized for its literary salons crammed with poets and political figures. The ambiance was “a artistic hurricane,” Mr. Cuixart mentioned that will 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 among 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 power in Catalan tradition. It revived the Evening of St. Llúcia, an after-dark literary pageant in Barcelona that had been banned by Franco, and gave out the St. Jordi Prize for the very best novel written in Catalan.

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

“Being Catalan was greater than a language and a bloodline,” he mentioned. “It was a choice to dwell 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 accredited 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 unbiased state, lengthy thought of a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had change into the president of Omnium, was typically conflicted that his group had additionally joined the independence push — it was a cultural group in spite of everything, not a political one. However in the long run, he mentioned that not becoming a member of would have been standing on the improper aspect 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 happening, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry constructing on suspicions that plans for the vote have 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 high 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 following month. However Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there have been no penalties after he dodged a navy draft as a younger man. He thought he had little to concern this time round.

However then the costs got here: sedition, one of many highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian fees for exercise at a protest shocked even authorized consultants who mentioned that the sedition legal guidelines — which cowl crimes much less severe than full-out rise up — had been hardly ever utilized in a rustic.

“I needed to search for 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 spends his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who’s in opposition to Catalan independence, mentioned he felt little pity for Mr. Cuixart’s state of affairs 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 properties. “I’ve associates I now not converse to over this.”

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

“In some unspecified time in the future, Spain goes to need to 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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