Jailed Catalan separatists’ prospects of early release grow dim

Plans are hampered by delays in criminal code reform and clemency requests, as well as an adverse court decision on flexible prison regimes

Left to right: Joaquim Forn, Jordi Cuixart, Oriol Junqueras and Raul Romeva entering Lledoners penitentiary.
Left to right: Joaquim Forn, Jordi Cuixart, Oriol Junqueras and Raul Romeva entering Lledoners penitentiary.CRISTÓBAL CASTRO

The nine jailed leaders of the 2017 breakaway bid in Catalonia are watching their prospects of release by year’s end grow dim.

Less than a month ago there were still three open possibilities. One was the tercer grado, or Grade 3 prison regime, an open system in which inmates only spend weekday nights in prison. These conditions were awarded to them in the summer by the Catalan government, but the move was appealed by prosecutors and struck down by the Supreme Court in early December.

Then there was the Spanish executive’s planned reform of the criminal code to change the definition of sedition, the crime that the separatist politicians and activists were convicted of on October 14, 2019, after a high-profile trial that sentenced them to between eight and 13 years in prison. The reform would benefit the Catalan inmates by significantly reducing their prison terms.

Finally, the Spanish government – led by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos – tried to speed up the processing of clemency requests filed earlier this year.

But all three doors have gradually closed with each passing day. All nine inmates will spend Christmas behind bars, except for any benefits that might be applicable to the four who have already served one quarter of their sentence: Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, leaders of the civil society associations Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, as well as the former regional ministers Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull.

Government pardons

Catalan secessionist leaders at their trial in October 2019.
Catalan secessionist leaders at their trial in October 2019. EFE

A government pardon would be the quickest path to freedom, but it is also the most complicated. Although the decision lies exclusively with the central executive, it requires a report by the Supreme Court that will not be ready before the end of the year, and possibly not by February 14 either, the expected date for regional elections in Catalonia.

The four prosecutors who took part in the 2019 trial feel there is “no acceptable legal reason” for granting clemency to the jailed separatists, and they have suggested that such a move would be tied to “political agreements.” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was voted back into the prime minister’s office following the November 2019 election partly thanks to the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), whose leader Oriol Junqueras is one of the jailed separatists. More recently, this party also provided much-needed support for the government’s budget plan.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo declined to comment on the prosecutors’ position and said that his department has merely complied with its legal obligation to begin processing the requests, the first of which was filed in January by a Barcelona lawyer named Francesc Jufresa.

Prosecutors’ reports do not determine what the Supreme Court’s final position on the matter will be. By the same token, the court’s opinion is not binding for the government, which may grant the pardons anyway. But the Supreme Court is now in control of the time frames, as its report is necessary before the executive can make any decision.

Reform of criminal code

In the meantime, the government is also considering a reform of the definition of the crime of sedition, and it was planning to bring a draft bill before Congress by the end of the year. According to government sources, prison terms for sedition would be halved – they currently range from eight to 15 years – which would significantly reduce the sentences of the jailed secessionist leaders, paving the way for open regimes.

But Sánchez has recently put the brakes on this reform, creating tension within his own governing coalition: his partners of Unidas Podemos want the process to go faster. Last Monday the Unidas Podemos leader in parliament, Jaume Asens, told Justice Minister Campo that he has “broken his word.”

Last summer, the inmates spent several weeks in a flexible regime granted by the Catalan government on the basis of an interpretation of penitentiary regulations, which allow day release for paid or volunteer work or to care for family members; later they were granted tercer grado, which meant they only had to spend the nights of Monday through Thursday in prison.

But the Supreme Court revoked both measures in early December, calling the first “unjustifiable” and the second “premature,” especially in light of the fact that they have served less than half of their prison terms.

English version by Susana Urra.

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