Spain will pardon nine Catalan separatist leaders imprisoned for holding an unlawful referendum in 2017, the prime minister announced on Monday.
Speaking to civil society members in the Barcelona opera house, Pedro Sánchez said that he wanted a “fresh start” between Spain and Catalonia, choosing “concord over discord”.
No members of Catalonia’s current government were present to listen to Mr Sánchez’s speech, and a noisy protest by pro-independence supporters took place outside the emblematic venue.
Catalonia’s president, Pere Aragonès, said the pardons fell short of his government’s demand for an amnesty that would wipe out the 2019 convictions for sedition and other charges, as well as prevent further prosecutions against politicians such as former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is battling against extradition to Spain from Belgium.
“It’s a step forward that we recognise, but it is insufficient and incomplete,” said Mr Aragonès, who has indicated that his government is prepared to resume negotiations with the Spanish government in search of a solution to the conflict.
With the Covid-19 health crisis seemingly under control, Spain’s Left-wing coalition government has turned its attention to the frozen conflict with Catalonia, with the decision to pardon the jailed Catalan leaders aimed at marking the start of an attempt to reach a political agreement.
“The landscape left by the pandemic has transformed us,” Mr Sánchez said, appealing to Catalans who recently elected a pro-independence majority in their regional parliament to trust in his government’s will to seek solutions.
“Nine people are in jail, but they represent millions of people,” Mr Sánchez said, adding: “Tomorrow we can change the lives of nine people, but I hope we can start to change history for all of us.”
The pardons Spain’s Cabinet will approve on Tuesday are expected to mean the end of the jail sentences of between nine and 13 years being served by the nine separatist leaders, but the accompanying bars on holding public office may remain in place.
As opposition leader in 2017, Mr Sánchez supported the Spanish government’s suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy after its parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence. As prime minister, Mr Sánchez once promised that the Catalan leaders would serve out their sentences “in full”.
But Podemos, the junior partner in Mr Sánchez’s Socialist party-led government, favours a self-determination referendum in Catalonia and the coalition relies on Basque and Catalan parties for a majority in Spain’s parliament.
A poll by Ipsos last week showed that 53 per cent of Spaniards are against the pardons, with only one in three in favour.
Politicians from Spain’s main conservative Popular Party (PP) opposition attacked the move as a capitulation before separatists who had tried to break the country’s constitution.
“Spain doesn’t lack democracy; the problem in Spain is negotiating with those who attack democracy,” said PP leader Pablo Casado.
“It’s a betrayal that will not be forgiven. Sánchez’s days are counted,” said PP Madrid leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso.