Pardons Are the Least Sánchez Can Do for Catalans

Spain should negotiate with Catalan separatists, not put them in prison.

Pedro Sánchez
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaks at a congress of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party in Huesca, October 1, 2019 (PSOE/Eva Ercolanese)

When he needed their support a year and a half ago to become prime minister a second time, Spain’s Pedro Sánchez offered Catalan parties a good deal: more autonomy, a resumption of official dialogue between the central and regional government, and possibly a pardon for the separatist leaders who were imprisoned for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017.

No additional competencies have yet been transferred from Madrid to Barcelona. Official talks, to hash out a new division of powers, have been on hold. A legal independence referendum is still unlikely. But Spanish media report Sánchez is mulling pardons.

It’s the least he can do.


Nine Catalan separatists, including the former vice president of the region, Oriol Junqueras, were sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison in 2019 for organizing the referendum two years earlier and claiming it as a mandate to break away from Spain. (92 percent voted for independence, but only 43 percent of Catalans turned out. Most unionists boycotted the referendum.)

Other members of the regional government at the time, including President Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain to escape prosecution.

The sentences were excessive. The referendum had been forbidden by Spain’s Constitutional Court, but the Catalans, who have a culture, history and language distinct from the rest of Spain’s, for years asked the Spanish government to sanction an independence vote and were rebuffed. The only violence was perpetrated by Spanish national police, who were bused in to beat up voters and confiscate ballot boxes. A declaration of independence was supported by seventy out of 135 regional lawmakers and immediately suspended.

They were also politically motivated. The conservative People’s Party, which was in government at the time, had for years refused to hear out, much less discuss, Catalan demands for self-determination. They drove Catalan nationalists to desperation. Supreme Court justices, the majority of whom had been appointed by the People’s Party, then cited the arcane crime of “sedition” to justify locking up not only seven members of the devolved Catalan government but two civil society leaders as well, who had done little more than encourage Catalans to vote.


Unsurprisingly, the same People’s Party and Supreme Court now oppose pardons.

The former claim Sánchez would “break the norms of democratic coexistence” if he lets the separatists out of prison when the party has done more to undermine Catalan-Spanish coexistence — by ignoring Catalan appeals, by sending in national police and by revoking Catalonia’s self-government in 2017 for the first time in Spain’s democratic history.

The Supreme Court insists there are no grounds for pardons — which would merely commute the sentences, not exonerate the Catalans of their “crimes” — since none of the prisoners have expressed remorse.

Were the hundreds of corrupt police officers, judges and People’s Party politicians José María Aznar pardoned in the late 1990s and early 2000s sorry, though?

In 1988, the Supreme Court even approved a pardon for one of the leaders of the 1981 putsch, General Alfonso Armada.

Catalan separatists are held to a different standard.


This isn’t really about legal arguments; what we’re hearing are the last gasps of a reactionary establishment, whose judicialization of Catalan separatism has failed. Far from reining in the independence movement, their lawfare has made Catalan secession more likely.

Sánchez is right to try a political approach. Negotiation and compromise are the best and only hope of persuading a majority of Catalans they still have a future in Spain.

Sánchez may not succeed. He has been slow to make good on his promises and faces formidable opposition, from unionist as well as separatist hardliners. But the conservative alternative of repression has failed. Just 27 percent of Catalans are happy with the status quo.