In early November 2017, Josep Rull, the former Catalan minister for territory and sustainability, posted the following on his Twitter account: "If you see this tweet then I've been jailed for being loyal to the ballot box."
More than 13 months later, Rull (50) is still in prison, although he was released on bail for several weeks earlier this year. He and 17 other pro-independence leaders are awaiting trial for their alleged role in Catalonia's failed bid for independence last year and nine of them are in custody. At the beginning of December, Rull and three others – Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Turull and Joaquim Forn – began a hunger strike at Lledoners prison where they are being held.
Their protest is driven by the fact that they remain in jail even though their trial has no scheduled date. They also argue that the Spanish judiciary has deliberately blocked appeals they have made in order to prevent their complaints from reaching the European Court of Human Rights.
"I want my case – and those of my colleagues – to reach the European courts," Rull told The Irish Times, in a written interview carried out via email. "But the Spanish courts put up obstacles because they fear being undermined by a truly impartial and independent judiciary."
The Catalan government says Rull has lost 7kg since beginning the strike. Yet the quartet who are carrying out the action appear to have embarked on it with caution. Jordi Sànchez told a radio interviewer recently: "I don't want to be the Catalan Bobby Sands." He added: "We haven't gone crazy. We're not going to immolate ourselves."
The supreme court says it was keeping Rull and the other prisoners in custody in order to prevent them from reoffending and from fleeing the country, as former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and several others did.
The independence movement has sought to place the nine imprisoned leaders, who also include former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, at the centre of Spain's ongoing territorial crisis. It argues they are political prisoners being punished for their views, not their actions.
Rull says that he is “in jail for fulfilling the mandate expressed by Catalan society in democratic elections: calling a referendum and applying its result”, a reference to the outlawed independence vote held in October 2017, during which police attacked many Catalans as they attempted to cast their vote.
As for the upcoming trial, Rull says that the guilt of the defendants is a foregone conclusion. If he is found guilty, he could face a jail sentence of up to 16 years for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. Junqueras faces a possible 25-year sentence.
“Our trial does not have the objective conditions necessary to make it trustworthy,” Rull says, adding that after the verdict he will appeal to the European judiciary. “I want to take the opportunity to show how this trial is designed [by Spain] to serve as a lesson to those who want independence, with the aim of making them give up their desire for freedom.”
A string of recent controversies within the Spanish judiciary – including some affecting the supreme court – has helped fuel such criticism, despite the insistence of the central government and others that the trial will be fair.
Yet while the hunger strike seeks to draw international attention to the Catalan issue, it also seems to have underlined divisions within the independence movement. The four prisoners carrying out the protest are all members of the Together for Catalonia (JxCat) parliamentary group, whose relationship with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which represents four of the other prisoners, has been deteriorating.
On Wednesday, five former Catalan presidents, including Carles Puigdemont, were among those who appealed to the hunger strikers to call off their action in order to safeguard their health.
Rull, however, denies that the strike could make relationships within the independence movement worse.
“The movement is broad and diverse,” he says. “It’s not necessary for us all to do the same thing because we all respect the peaceful actions of others.”
Yet the movement's unity is clearly under pressure and the Catalan president, Quim Torra of JxCat, is struggling to balance the political demands of his post with the need to remain popular among grassroots activists. His recent praise for the Slovenian route to independence, which saw dozens of people killed in 1991, has been seen as a mistake by many, including some allies.
But Rull insists that blame for the lack of improvement in relations between Madrid and Catalonia lies squarely with Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. His efforts to reduce tensions by taking a series of measures aimed at normalising the relationship with the region have left pro-independence Catalans unimpressed.
“[The] Spanish government should take much bolder steps in order to be able to embark on an effective process of political dialogue, which is the only way of finding solutions to the conflict,” Rull says.
Yet it is the political right that appears to have been emboldened, demanding that Sánchez reintroduce direct rule in Catalonia. Meanwhile, the leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, has dismissed the hunger strike as a "high-protein diet".
There is speculation in many quarters that if Spain’s political turmoil continues, resulting in a reckless response to the Catalan crisis by Madrid, it could benefit the independence movement, which already casts itself as the victim of an undemocratic state.
“There are, without a doubt, pro-independence Catalans who think like that, but I’m not one of them,” says Rull.
"Anyway, the ones who benefit most from the tensions between Catalonia and Madrid are not the Catalan [pro-independence] parties but rather the Spanish parties which share the vision of Spain that the Franco regime had."