Spanish government drafting legal reform that could lead to release of jailed Catalan separatists

Justice ministry wants to reduce the penalty for sedition to adapt the crime to “current reality"

Leaders of the Catalan breakaway attempt during their trial at the Supreme Court in October 2019.
Leaders of the Catalan breakaway attempt during their trial at the Supreme Court in October 2019.EFE
José Manuel Romero

The Spanish government is working on a reform of the criminal code that would halve the prison terms for sedition, the crime that several leaders of the 2017 Catalan breakaway attempt are currently serving time for.

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo is expecting to have a draft bill ready before the end of the year, said sources in the Spanish executive, which is headed by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos.

If the minority government secures approval for its reform plans, it will lead to an automatic reduction of the prison terms imposed on nine separatist leaders who were sentenced by the Supreme Court to between nine and 13 years behind bars for their role in the attempt at unilateral independence from Spain.

The government’s main ally inside parliament, the separatist party Catalan Republican Left (ERC), has been demanding their release. One of the convicted individuals is ERC party president Oriol Junqueras, who was the deputy premier of Catalonia during the secession attempt.

The justice minister recently said that the concept of sedition as it was originally defined has become outdated and that it must be adapted “to the current reality,” which among other things entails a penalty reduction.

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo in Congress.
Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo in Congress.EFE

Even if the reform were to secure passage in the Congress of Deputies, where the PSOE and Unidas Podemos together hold 155 seats in the 350-strong house, it would not necessarily satisfy ERC’s demands.

Four of the convicted leaders, including Junqueras, were also found guilty of misusing public funds to organize the illegal independence referendum of October 1, 2017. The government has no current plans to reform the penalties for this crime, which is closely linked to corruption. This means that even if the prison terms for sedition are reduced, the independence leaders could still continue to serve time for misuse of public funds.

Government pardons

The government is also considering requests for clemency filed earlier this year on behalf of the jailed politicians and activists. The decision is still pending reports by the seven Supreme Court justices and four prosecutors who participated in the trial. The Catalan penitentiaries where the convicted individuals are serving their terms have already sent in their reports.

In recent months, both the court and the prosecution services have spoken out against granting benefits to the prisoners, calling the events that led to their conviction “very serious” and with “devastating effects on democratic coexistence.”

An appeal filed in July by the prosecution against a more flexible prison regime for these prisoners argued that the Catalan government was not so much seeking their rehabilitation as trying to void the Supreme Court’s convictions. Prosecutors said that giving them an open regime would convey a message of impunity for “turning one’s own will into law outside the legally established channels.”

Even with negative reports, the government could still grant pardons: though not very common, it has happened in the past. There are many forms of clemency, including a partial one in which the government decides how much to reduce the prison term by.

Legal sources said that the government could be planning to first reduce the independence leaders' prison terms by reforming the criminal code, then reducing these further with a partial pardon, which would ultimately result in their release from prison.

Separatist leaders

In addition to Oriol Junqueras, the other separatist leaders convicted for their involvement in the breakaway attempt are: ex-government ministers Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull and Dolors Bassa; ex-cabinet ministers Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn; former speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell; and the leaders of the civil society groups Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart.

English version by Susana Urra.

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