Spain’s leader mulls granting amnesty to thousands of Catalan separatists in order to stay in power

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AP, BARCELONA :

Barcelona accountant Oriol Calvo ran afoul of the law when he was arrested in 2019 during a mass protest by supporters of Catalonia’s independence from Spain that turned violent. A court found him guilty of public disorder and of aggressive behavior toward a police officer — offenses he denies.

The 25-year-old is among several thousand ordinary citizens who faced legal trouble for their often tiny part in Catalonia’s illegal secession bid that brought Spain to the brink of rupture six years ago.

Now Calvo hopes his conviction and those of many others will be wiped clean if Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, follows through and issues a sweeping amnesty for the separatists in exchange for their movement’s political parties helping him form a new government in Madrid.

Calvo’s sentence of 18 months was suspended since it was his first offense, but it is still a stain on his record and has affected his willingness to participate in politics. He has stopped going to rallies for independence for fears that it could complicate his legal situation. He also felt betrayed.

“I became very bitter,” Calvo said. “I felt betrayed by the justice system, but also I thought about all the efforts that the movement had made in the fight to achieve independence that had gotten us nowhere.”

Sánchez, who has granted pardons to several leaders of the movement in the past, says that the amnesty will be positive for Spain because it will further reduce tensions inside Catalonia. Yet no one doubts that he is doing it only out of political necessity given how divisive the Catalan independence movement is both inside Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

A national election in July left no party close to an absolute majority and with Sánchez in need of the support of several smaller parties to stay in power. Those include two pro-secession Catalan parties who led the unsuccessful 2017 breakaway attempt and who now find themselves holding the key votes in Parliament that Sánchez requires.

Given the chance to play kingmaker, the two separatist parties are using their leverage. They have made an amnesty law as a prerequisite for supporting Sánchez.

The clock is already ticking. Sánchez has until Nov. 27 to form a government, otherwise new elections will be triggered for January.

Sánchez and his center-left Socialist party have tried to keep as quiet as possible on the amnesty question, but the leader has acknowledged that talks are on-going with the Catalan parties, including one led by the fugitive former regional leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain for Belgium after his dream to carve out a new state in northeast Spain collapsed.

Spain’s courts are still trying to have Puigdemont extradited. Given that Puigdemont is considered an enemy of the state for many Spaniards, any deal that could benefit him is politically toxic.

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Tens of thousands of people rallied in downtown Barcelona on Oct. 8 against a possible amnesty in a sign of the danger that Sánchez runs.

An amnesty “would be shameful because Spain can’t be governed by people who want to split from the country,” said 23-year-old Pablo Seco, an aeronautical engineer who attended the rally.

For Montserrat Nebrera, professor of constitutional law at the International University of Catalonia, the negotiations between Sánchez and the separatist leaders are a “hall of mirrors” wherein both sides try to appear that they have the upper hand, when in reality they need one another.

“Pedro Sánchez needs the amnesty law to pass so he can get the four votes he is lacking,” Nebrera told the AP. “The secessionists, however, also need to show their people that they are not only interested in saving the necks of their leaders … but also of the people who disobeyed authorities or damaged public property and whose punishments, while not huge, have greatly complicated their lives.”

Spain’s conservative party, which lost a bid to form a government last month, is already bashing Sánchez for what it describes as selling Spain out to stay in power. Former Socialist prime minister Felipe González has also said that the amnesty is not merited.

Spain granted a sweeping amnesty during its transition back to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. But legal experts are divided over the constitutionality of an amnesty for the Catalan separatists.

The pro-independence Catalan organization Omnium Cultural says that an amnesty should benefit some 4,400 more people, mostly minor officials and ordinary citizens who either helped to organize an illegal 2017 referendum or participated, like Calvo, in protests that turned ugly.

But Omnium and the two Catalan separatist parties say they want much more than just a clean slate for people in trouble with the law: they want the terms of the amnesty to establish a legal pretext for Catalonia eventually holding a binding, authorized referendum on independence.

“For us, the amnesty is not the solution to the conflict, it is the starting point from which the conflict can begin to be resolved,” said Xavier Antich, president of Omnium Cultural.

That going-for-broke position, however, may run the risk of wrecking the whole operation, as well as leaving people like Calvo in the lurch.

“They have already tried to have a referendum authorized and it has not worked,” Calvo said. “So I believe that trying to force something that we know isn’t going to happen is useless and could derail the amnesty talks.”

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