On the same day Europe’s highest court ruled in favor of the imprisoned former Catalan vice president and separatist leader Oriol Junqueras, who has been prevented by Spain from taking his seat in the European Parliament, the Catalan High Court banned the region’s president, Quim Torra, from public office for refusing to remove separatist symbols from government buildings during the most recent election campaign.
Torra is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court and will remain in office until it has ruled.
Junqueras remains in prison, but the European ruling gives hope to self-exiled Catalan politicians Toni Comín and Carles Puigdemont, who like him were elected to the European Parliament in May but haven’t been allowed by Spain to take their seats.
What the two decisions have in common is that they reveal how politicized the Spanish justice system is.
It was the Supreme Court which refused to release Junqueras from pre-trial detention to attend his swearing-in ceremony. It were Spanish lawyers who argued that, as a result, Junqueras had not become a member of the European Parliament.
Now the European Court of Justice has clarified that the Spanish swearing-in ceremony has no legal standing. Junqueras became a member of the European Parliament the moment he was elected.
The same Supreme Court found Junqueras and eight other separatist leaders guilty of sedition against the Spanish state in October for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017 and declaring Catalonia’s secession from Spain. They were convicted to up to thirteen years in prison. Human rights groups have condemned the sentences as excessive.
Sedition is not a crime anymore in most European countries — which is the reason Spain has been unable to extradite Comín and Puigdemont from Belgium — because it is difficult to distinguish from the criminalization of free speech.
Indeed, Spain’s Supreme Court made no distinction between former members of the Catalan government, including Junqueras, who led the 2017 independence push, and the leaders of the two largest pro-independence groups in the region, whose “crime” was to encourage Catalans to vote and protest.
Torra’s court case is an example of the pettiness of Catalonia’s unionists. The president refused to take down Catalan independence flags and yellow ribbons — symbols for the release of the nine prisoners — from the regional government palace in Barcelona, so opponents of independence sued.
The Catalan leader knew the law was not on his side, which reasonably bars the government from taking sides in an election campaign.
But that law was written to prevent support for a party or politician, not a cause.
The Catalan High Court’s interpretation is a strict one, one that will almost certainly be upheld by the Supreme Court, which has consistently sided against Catalan interests.
It arguably triggered the independence crisis a decade ago, when it found in favor of Spanish conservatives and ruled that parts of Catalonia’s autonomy statute were unconstitutional. Just a third of Catalans wanted their own state at the time. Now it’s close to half.
Unionists have the law and the Spanish state on their side. They have convinced judges to ban yellow ribbons from public buildings. Separatist leaders are either in prison or in exile. Assuming the Supreme Court upholds Torra’s ban from public office, he will be the second Catalan president in a row to be removed for supporting independence, after Puigdemont.
Still unionists act like victims. It is not enough for them to win. The separatists must be humiliated.
It is petty, vindictive and, most importantly, counterproductive, as it does nothing to heal the rift between opponents and proponents of Catalan independence.