Jordi Cuixart, one of nine Catalan leaders recently given lengthy jail terms for sedition, says his imprisonment will help his region gain independence from Spain.
On October 14th the supreme court found Cuixart, the president of the pro-independence organisation Òmnium Cultural, and eight others guilty of charges related to their role in a failed bid to secede two years ago.
“For me, prison is a necessary step towards achieving the right to self-determination,” Cuixart (44) said in written answers to questions from The Irish Times. He is in Lledoners prison, northwest of Barcelona.
“Prison is a platform from which to denounce the violation of rights and the bad news for the [Spanish] state is that for some time now prison has lost its effectiveness as a coercive tool.”
Cuixart received a jail term of nine years, which he describes as "a political and unjust sentence". The other eight jail terms handed out ranged between nine and 13 years, the latter for former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, who was found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds. Three other defendants were found guilty of disobedience but avoided prison terms.
Ten of those sentenced were politicians, while Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, also sentenced to nine years, were rank-and-file leaders. The two have already been in jail for more than two years, having been held in preventive custody ahead of their trial.
Independence campaigners and the Catalan government say all nine of those jailed are political prisoners. Earlier this year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the immediate release of Cuixart and Sànchez.
Cuixart, whose wife gave birth to a son last month, says he does not want a pardon.
“Because a pardon would imply mercy on the part of the state,” he said. “And I have not committed any crime. I don’t want to leave prison having been pardoned, but rather with my head held high, with dignity. And we won’t ask for forgiveness for having exercised fundamental rights.”
He adds: “It’s the Spanish state which should say sorry for violating the right to protest and freedom of expression. I said it during the farce of a trial we had: ‘I will do it all again’.”
By contrast, he welcomed the idea of a parliamentary amnesty for the nine prisoners, because that would take the issue away from the judiciary and into the national political debate.
Although members of the political opposition in Madrid have claimed that acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez is willing to consider offering pardons, neither that possibility nor an amnesty appears likely at the moment, especially with a general election approaching on November 10th. Unionist parties are taking mainly tough stances on the territorial issue, with parties on the right urging the Socialist Sánchez to start taking emergency measures in Catalonia, such as introducing direct rule.
Cuixart says such a step would mean “the de facto cancellation of democracy” in the northeastern region. Although Sánchez has so far resisted the calls from his right, Cuixart sees the Socialist leader in the same light as his predecessor as prime minister, the conservative Mariano Rajoy.
“Sadly, both Rajoy and Pedro Sánchez have preferred to pass on their political responsibilities to the judges and the police, with the support of the king, thus perpetuating the conflict,” he said.
Tensions between Madrid and Barcelona have increased lately, with Sánchez refusing to engage in talks with Catalan president Quim Torra, whom he accuses of failing to condemn street violence by some of those who have been protesting against the supreme court verdict.
Those clashes between police and demonstrators have caused many to question the independence movement's insistence that it is peaceful. On Monday, the president of the influential Catalan National Assembly, Elisenda Paluzie, appeared to endorse the violence by saying it "makes the conflict visible" outside Spain.
Addressing the same issue, before Paluzie had made her comments, Cuixart said: “Of course [the violence] worries us, as we have always done we condemn any act of violence, of material damage or physical violence against people – whether it’s exercised by a minority who don’t represent us or by the police.”
That violence has also highlighted divisions within the independence movement, particularly between its rank-and-file activists and the political parties representing them, two of which govern the Catalan region in coalition, Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC).
Cuixart suggests that these parties have been holding back the will of many Catalans.
“The Catalan institutions and political parties have to be consistent, because they have the democratic legitimacy of the ballot box and they can’t pass certain responsibilities on to civil society,” he said. “We are activists and we will keep on pressuring the politicians – in Barcelona and in Madrid – so that they listen to the voice of the people and offer solutions.”
Some nationalist politicians have suggested that the independence movement, which polls suggest represents about half of Catalans, should acknowledge strategic errors in its unilateral attempt to secede, via a chaotic referendum, two years ago. The Catalan foreign minister, Alfred Bosch, told The Irish Times in September that “what happened in October 2017 cannot be repeated”. However, Cuixart is reluctant to accept that in hindsight he and others could have acted differently. Instead he focuses on the response of the Spanish authorities.
“Maybe our mistake was to think that the state had changed and would act in a democratic way,” he said.
The independence movement has constantly sought to place the Catalan crisis on the international stage and Cuixart and his convicted colleagues are planning to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
In the meantime, he believes that independence remains an attainable goal.
“The causes of this desire [for independence], far from disappearing, are more present than ever, due to repression and, for example, the lack of structural investment in Catalonia which impairs social services and public policy,” he said.
“For that reason, independence has great support and sooner or later the Catalan Republic will be a reality. In the future we hope to be a great ally of the Irish Republic.”