Spain’s top court warns against pardoning jailed Catalan leaders

PM likely to pay political price if he moves from punishment to ‘time for concord’

 Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez: The government will base its decision on “coexistence between all Spaniards”. Photograph: Emilio Naranjo

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez: The government will base its decision on “coexistence between all Spaniards”. Photograph: Emilio Naranjo


Spain’s supreme court has dealt a blow to the government of prime minister Pedro Sánchez, warning it would be “unacceptable” to pardon nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders.

Wednesday’s court opinion came as Mr Sánchez signalled his government was preparing to grant pardons for the nine people imprisoned for up to 13 years over an illegal 2017 referendum on independence, a move he suggests would help defuse the Catalan dispute.

But the judges’ stance is likely to increase the political cost and legal risk of such a course of action.

“There is not the slightest proof or faintest hint of regret,” the court said of the imprisoned leaders, warning the government against seeking to “correct” the verdict.

The 21-page legal opinion prevents the government from issuing a full rather than partial pardon for the nine, who include Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Republican Left party (ERC) and former deputy head of the regional government.

Declaration of independence

Opposition leaders have also said they would take any pardon to the courts. Pablo Casado, leader of the centre-right People’s Party, said on Wednesday he would take the “ultimate consequences” to stop the prisoners from being pardoned.

The supreme court sentenced the nine Catalan leaders for offences including sedition in October 2019, two years after the referendum, which was followed by a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament.

The Spanish constitution sets out the “indissoluble unity” of the nation.

“When the people behind an attempt to unilaterally subvert the constitutional order portray themselves as political prisoners . . . the reasons invoked for the full or partial cancellation of their sentencing lose all justification,” the court said on Wednesday.

But even as the court issued its opinion, Mr Sánchez dropped the latest in a series of hints that the prisoners would be pardoned. “There is a time for punishment and a time for concord,” the prime minister told parliament. He said the government would base its decision on “coexistence between all Spaniards” rather than on the need for Catalan votes in parliament.

Catalan dispute

The prime minister’s minority Socialist-radical left coalition is dependent on ERC MPs to win votes and Mr Sánchez has long said he wants to take the Catalan dispute out of the courts, although he also previously said the jail sentences would be “carried out in full”.

Pro-independence parties won a majority of votes and seats in the most recent Catalan elections in February and finally formed a government this week, headed by the ERC.

The ERC emphasises confrontation less than the previous separatist Catalan leadership and Pere Aragonès, the new head of the regional administration, has called for dialogue with Madrid while insisting on Catalonia’s “self-determination” and an amnesty for the prisoners.

Mr Sánchez’s administration has ruled out an amnesty but continues to indicate that a pardon is likely in the coming weeks and is also seeking to change the law on sedition.

The supreme court’s resounding opinion is likely to increase the political cost of such a course of action.

A backlash against Catalan separatism in recent regional elections elsewhere in Spain helped eject the Socialists from power in their traditional stronghold of Andalucía and fuelled the rise of Vox, the hard-right party. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021