Catalan premier facing prosecution for not removing separatist symbols

Public prosecutor will bring charges of disobedience against Quim Torra, who will not face prison time but could be removed from his position and barred from public office

A banner in support of jailed separatist leaders is removed from Catalan government HQ.Video: Toni Polo

The regional premier of Catalonia, Quim Torra, is facing a criminal prosecution that could see him barred from office over his refusal to remove pro-independence symbols from public buildings ahead of the upcoming national, regional and local elections in Spain.

Spain’s Central Electoral Board (JEC) had instructed the Catalan regional government to take down the signs and symbols from the buildings that it owns or manages. These symbols include yellow ribbons, a sign of support for the pro-independence leaders who were placed in custody ahead of their Supreme Court trial, which is currently ongoing.

Torra was given instructions by the JEC to remove the material 11 days ago, and a deadline to do so by Tuesday afternoon. But the hardline separatist leader opted to ignore the order and instead requested a report from the Catalan ombudsman for advice. The Síndic de Greuges, as the ombudsman is known, advised the regional government that it should take down the symbols.

In response, on Thursday Torra changed the banner on the balcony of the Catalan government’s main building. But it was swapped for an identical sign calling for the release of “political prisoners,” the only difference being the use of a white ribbon instead of a yellow one.

The banner hanging from the Catalan government headquarters.
The banner hanging from the Catalan government headquarters.Europa Press

On Friday, plainclothes officers from the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, officially notified the premier’s office of the JEC’s instruction, according to police sources. The Catalan police had been ordered to remove the material themselves before 3pm on Friday. On receiving that notification, Torra gave the order for the material to be removed. Hours later, a new banner went up with the message: “Freedom of opinion and expression.”

In a statement released on Friday while the symbols were being taken down, Torra said that he “respected the actions of the Mossos d’Esquadra” as the Catalan police force is known, even “when they are acting as the judicial police for the Spanish justice system.” He went on to say in the statement that he will appeal the JEC’s decision at the Supreme Court and will file a criminal complaint against that body for prevaricación, which involves issuing a knowingly arbitrary decision. The premier called on citizens to fill their “balconies and homes with esteladas [the unofficial flag used by supporters of independence] and yellow ribbons.”

Torra said he respects the regional police even “when they are acting as the judicial police for the Spanish justice system”

While the pro-independence politicians currently on trial in the Supreme Court could be sentenced to long jail terms for their roles in the 2017 secessionist drive – which saw an illegal referendum held on October 1 and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence passed by the regional parliament – Torra will likely be facing a charge of disobedience, an offense that does not carry prison time, but rather a fine.

The political fallout, however, could be huge, given that he could also be barred from public office and thus removed from the premiership if found guilty.

Quim Torra in Barcelona this week.
Quim Torra in Barcelona this week.Joan Valls (GTRES)

A predecessor of Torra’s, Artur Mas, was also convicted on the same charge for having organized an unofficial independence referendum on November 9, 2014, despite the poll having been banned by the Constitutional Court. In 2017, he was barred from office for two years.

Some sectors of the regional government, which is run by a coalition of the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), were uncomfortable with the fact that the Mossos had been drawn into the controversy. Regional departments run by the ERC had already started to remove the symbols from public buildings ahead of official notification by the Mossos. The regional economy department was the first to obey the JEC instruction and take them down.

Other departments from the same party had also started to remove the material earlier on in the day, thus avoiding the involvement of the Mossos.

English version by Simon Hunter.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS