Thu. May 6th, 2021
Criminal or Martyr? A Prisoner Poses a Political Dilemma For Spain

BARCELONA — Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization regarded in Spain as substantially for its literary prizes as for its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.

But its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be located: For the final 3 and a half many years, he has lived in a prison cell.

To the Spanish authorities, Mr. Cuixart is a harmful criminal, convicted of sedition for major a rally at a time when he and other separatist leaders have been searching for to set up a breakaway state in the northeastern area of Catalonia. But to his supporters, and in the eyes of quite a few foreign nations, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.

“They want us to modify our ideals,” Mr. Cuixart explained, speaking by a thick pane of glass in the prison visitors’ part on a current afternoon.

Far more than 3 many years have passed considering that the Catalonian independence motion just about tore Spain apart, and the politicians in Madrid have seemingly won. Programs for secession are largely dead. The sound of pots banging, which had been a fixture of the motion, is seldom heard at evening now in Barcelona.

But Spain’s leaders, now consumed with battling the coronavirus pandemic, even now have a political difficulty. To quite a few, Mr. Cuixart and eight other males jailed for sedition are now martyrs who, in accordance to human rights groups, are becoming held for nothing at all extra than voicing and acting on their political views.

For the Spanish government — and for Europe as a full — they have also grow to be a diplomatic headache, raising accusations of hypocrisy towards a area regarded for demanding higher democratic freedoms all around the planet.

Russia this 12 months cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the release of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and calls their jailing a kind of political intimidation.

Even lawmakers in the European Union, which Spain is a member of, have raised their plight. When the bloc mentioned holding Hungary and Poland accountable to E.U. rule-of-law specifications, some European parliamentarians mentioned a double normal: Spain, they explained, held political prisoners.

The jailings stem from a longstanding conflict, even now unresolved, more than identity, language and who has the suitable to rule in Catalonia, a area of seven.five million folks on the border with France.

In 2017, Catalonia was plunged into chaos when its leaders experimented with to hold a regional independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish courts. The nationwide government in Madrid sent in riot squads, which seized ballot boxes and even beat some of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, in spite of the truth that extra than half of voters did not cast ballots and polls showed that Catalonia was split on independence.

Defiant, the Parliament in Catalonia went ahead and declared independence anyway — only to suspend its personal declaration in advance of becoming dissolved by the Spanish government. By that time, Mr. Cuixart had currently been arrested and other separatist leaders fled for Belgium.

In 2019, the courts sentenced Mr. Cuixart and eight other people to involving 9 and 13 many years in prison soon after convicting them of sedition.

“He is in jail only for doing exercises his suitable to express himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish workplace of Amnesty Global, explained of Mr. Cuixart.

Arancha González Laya, the Spanish foreign minister, explained that this situation brought agonizing recollections in the nation of other independence movements, such as the killings by the terrorist group ETA, which fought for decades for the independence of the northern Basque area.

“They are not political prisoners. These are politicians that have broken the law,” Ms. González Laya explained in an interview.

“The query is, do you have in Spain the capacity to express a various viewpoint? Solution: Yes. Do you have the suitable to unilaterally come to a decision that you break up the nation? No,” she additional.

But David Bondia, an global law professor in Barcelona, explained that the Spanish government was taking into consideration an overhaul that would weaken its sedition laws, anything he sees as an admission that there had been a blunder in jailing the separatist leaders.

Mr. Cuixart’s situation was even extra problematic from a legal see. He was the head of a cultural group, nevertheless his sedition trial was carried out beneath a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr. Bondia explained, raising due-method queries.

For Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the circumstance recalls the days of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in worry of persecution.

“For us, this has hit tricky and brought us to the previous,” he explained.

Mr. Puigdemont, who is also wished on sedition fees, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, in which he serves in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was eliminated in March, making it possible for for him to be extradited.

The shadow of Franco played a function in the early days of Omnium, the cultural organization that Mr. Cuixart would go on to lead.

It was founded in 1961 by a group of businessmen to encourage the Catalan language at a time when the Spanish government forbade its use in public. Shortly soon after, Francoists closed Omnium and the group went underground.

When Mr. Cuixart was expanding up on the outskirts of Barcelona in the 1980s, Franco had died and quite a few vestiges of his regime had lengthy been swept away. But Mr. Cuixart even now noticed an intolerance towards his culture.

There was Mr. Cuixart’s identify, for 1. His initial identify, Jordi, was the Catalan identify of the region’s patron saint, St. George the dragon slayer. But in official paperwork, Mr. Cuixart was registered with the Spanish identify Jorge, a popular practice in the nation, which had forbidden registering Catalan initial names.

“They noticed distinction as a risk,” he explained.

Mr. Cuixart was swept into the planet of Catalan letters by an uncle who owned a bookstore that was quickly regarded for its literary salons filled with poets and political figures. The ambiance was “a innovative hurricane,” Mr. Cuixart explained that would inspire him for decades.

As a younger guy, Mr. Cuixart plunged into the planet of organization, initial functioning in Barcelona factories, then conserving to open 1 of his personal. Just after his profile as an entrepreneur started to rise, he joined Omnium in 1996.

The group had grown considering that its clandestine days into a crucial force in Catalan culture. It revived the Evening of St. Llúcia, an soon after-dark literary festival in Barcelona that had been banned by Franco, and gave out the St. Jordi Prize for the finest novel written in Catalan.

Omnium also reawakened the nationalist emotions that Mr. Cuixart had felt as a teenager.

“Being Catalan was extra than a language and a bloodline,” he explained. “It was a selection to dwell right here and to be right here. This is what manufactured you Catalan.”

In 2010, Spain’s courts threw out a charter that granted broad powers for self-government, 4 many years soon after it had been authorized by voters and the regional Parliament. The move brought widespread anger and separatist flags grew to become popular in the countryside.

Quickly, Parliament was discussing a move to declare an independent state, lengthy regarded a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had grow to be the president of Omnium, was in some cases conflicted that his group had also joined the independence push — it was a cultural organization soon after all, not a political 1. But in the finish, he explained that not joining would have been standing on the incorrect side of historical past.

The vital day came for Mr. Cuixart on Sept. twenty, 2017, when the Spanish police, making an attempt to quit the independence referendum from taking spot, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry setting up on suspicions that programs for the vote have been becoming organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the area.

Mr. Cuixart and a professional-independence leader, Jordi Sánchez, experimented with to mediate involving the protesters and the police. They set up pathways by the crowd for officers to enter the setting up and manufactured announcements that anybody taking into consideration violence was a “traitor.”

As the evening wore on, Mr. Cuixart explained that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he is witnessed on top rated of a motor vehicle calling for the crowd to disperse. Regardless of jeers from the protesters, most left and Mr. Cuixart explained that he then went to bed.

The vote was held amid the crackdown the up coming month. But Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there have been no consequences soon after he dodged a military draft as a younger guy. He believed he had tiny to worry this time all around.

But then the fees came: sedition, 1 of the highest crimes in Spain. This kind of draconian fees for exercise at a protest amazed even legal specialists who explained that the sedition laws — which cover crimes significantly less significant than complete-out rebellion — had been seldom utilized in a nation.

“I had to search up what ‘sedition’ even was,” Mr. Cuixart explained.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days at the Lledoners prison, a penitentiary constructed for about one,000 inmates, and property to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He explained he spends his afternoons meditating and creating letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is towards Catalan independence, explained he felt tiny pity for Mr. Cuixart’s circumstance mainly because the separatists brought it on themselves.

“I do not forgive them mainly because they’ve broken our society,” Mr. Cañas explained, incorporating that the independence push even now divided Spanish households. “I have good friends I no longer communicate to more than this.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his aspect, explained he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it all more than once again, he explained. It was Spain that wanted to modify, he explained, not him.

“At some level, Spain is going to have to reflect and request themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he explained. “Eliminate me? They cannot.”

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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