Prison or martyr? A prisoner poses a political dilemma for Spain

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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 goals of an unbiased republic in Catalonia.

However its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be discovered: For the previous 3 1/2 years, he has lived in a jail cell.

To Spanish authorities, Cuixart is a harmful legal, convicted of sedition for main a rally at a time when he and different separatist leaders had been searching for to arrange a breakaway state within the northeastern area 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,” Cuixart mentioned, talking by a thick pane of glass within the jail guests part on a current afternoon.

Greater than three years have handed because the Catalonian independence motion practically 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, isn’t 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, Cuixart and eight different males jailed for sedition at the moment are martyrs who, in accordance with human rights teams, are being held for nothing greater than voicing and performing on their political opinions.

For the Spanish authorities — and for Europe as an entire — they’ve additionally grow to be a diplomatic headache, elevating accusations of hypocrisy in opposition to a area identified for demanding better democratic freedoms world wide.

Russia this yr cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the discharge of Alexei 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, of which Spain is a member, have raised their plight. When the bloc mentioned holding Hungary and Poland accountable to EU rule-of-law requirements, some European parliamentarians famous a double customary: Spain, they mentioned, held political prisoners.

A gathering of Omnium Cultural in Barcelona on March 22, 2021. The group was based in 1961 to advertise the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish authorities forbade its use in public. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Instances)

The jailings stem from a long-standing battle, nonetheless unresolved, over id, language and who has the precise to guide 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 Spanish courts. The nationwide authorities in Madrid despatched in riot squads, which seized poll packing containers and even beat a few of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, even though greater than half of voters didn’t solid 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 authorities. By that point, Cuixart had already been arrested, and different separatist leaders fled for Belgium.

In 2019, the courts sentenced 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 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,” González Laya mentioned in an interview.

“The query is, do you’ve gotten in Spain the flexibility to specific a special opinion? Reply: Sure. Do you’ve gotten the precise to unilaterally resolve 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.

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, Bondia mentioned, elevating due-process questions.

{A photograph} of Jordi Cuixart, the group’s president, on the workplaces of Omnium Cultural in Barcelona, on March 19, 2021. Cuixart is is serving a nine-year jail sentence for supporting a failed independence bid in his Spanish area, and his supporters say he shouldn’t be in jail in any respect. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Instances)

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 arduous and introduced us to the previous,” he mentioned.

Puigdemont, who can also be needed on sedition prices, 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 Cuixart would go on to guide.

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

There was 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, 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 risk,” he mentioned.

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,” Cuixart mentioned that may encourage him for many years.

As a younger man, 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 power 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 Cuixart had felt as a young person.

“Being Catalan was greater than a language and a bloodline,” he mentioned. “It was a call 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 frequent within the countryside.

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

Cuixart, who by 2015 had grow 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 flawed aspect of historical past.

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

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

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

The vote was held amid the crackdown the subsequent month. However 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.

Protesters rally outdoors the Lledoners jail north of Barcelona, on March 19, 2021. Activists have gathered outdoors the jail each night time since 2017 in help of the Catalan separatist leaders held there. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Instances)

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 critical than full-out riot — had been not often utilized in a rustic.

“I needed to search for what ‘sedition’ even was,” Cuixart mentioned.

Cuixart now spends his days on the Lledoners jail, a penitentiary constructed for about 1,000 inmates that’s residence 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 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,” Cañas mentioned, including that the independence push nonetheless divided Spanish houses. “I’ve associates I not converse to over this.”

Cuixart, for his half, mentioned he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it another time, 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 mirror and ask themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he mentioned. “Get rid of me? They’ll’t.”

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