Spanish government faces backlash over sedition review

Initiative would benefit Catalan leaders who fled abroad

The Spanish government is planning a review of the criminal code that could encourage the return of Catalan independence leaders who have avoided being brought to justice by fleeing abroad.

In a politically divisive move, the coalition administration of Socialist Pedro Sánchez specifically wants to review the crime of sedition and prison sentences related to it.

In 2019, nine Catalan politicians and civic leaders were given jail sentences of up to 13 years after being convicted of crimes that included sedition for their role in a failed bid for independence two years earlier. Last year, the Spanish government issued pardons for all nine and they were released.

However, the Spanish supreme court is still trying to extradite several other politicians who fled abroad so that they can face trial for sedition. Among them is Carles Puigdemont, who was president of Catalonia and the figurehead of the secession attempt. He has been living in Belgium since 2017 and has been elected as an MEP while continuing to campaign for independence.

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“We have a criminal code which, when it comes to certain crimes, is not comparable with the main European democracies,” Sánchez said recently as he defended the reform proposal.

He suggested that the Catalan crisis of five years ago had exposed frailties in the justice system.

“I think 2017 taught us a number of lessons regarding tasks and pending issues in our democracy that had been there for a long time,” he said. “And when I say a long time, I mean 40 years or so.”

In Spain, sedition can be punished with a jail sentence of up to 15 years, much more than most other European countries, where the average is around a third of that duration. That disparity is a major reason why the Spanish supreme court has so far failed to persuade other countries to extradite Puigdemont and his colleagues.

According to El País newspaper, citing government sources, the plan is to reduce the jail sentence for this crime to around half of the current 15-year maximum through a penal reform, which would require parliamentary approval. There are also reports that the mooted reform would reduce the time between the crime of sedition being committed and its prescription.

Although Puigdemont is also wanted by the Spanish judiciary for misuse of public funds, he would be a beneficiary of such a law change and it could feasibly persuade him to return to Spain. Another beneficiary would be Marta Rovira, the secretary general of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which governs the northeastern region, who is living in Switzerland.

Two former members of Puigdemont’s Catalan government, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí, both MEPs, are also wanted to face sedition charges. A third, Lluís Puig, is accused of misuse of public funds and disobedience. All three are living in Belgium and, like Puigdemont, have been locked in a lengthy battle to avoid extradition involving the European justice system.

Gabriel Rufían, spokesman for ERC, said the reform proposal was positive because the current law was “anachronistic”. But he added that Catalans “are much more worried about their mortgage, about how much they pay in the supermarket, how much they earn, the war and the climate”.

Catalan separatism

Some experts have cast doubt on how much impact a reform of the law would have on the self-exiled independence leaders, seeing it more as a symbolic move.

However, the right-wing opposition has repeated longstanding claims that the prime minister is pandering to Catalan separatism.

In a statement, the conservative Popular Party (PP) said that Sánchez was “using all the powers of state to pave the way for those who want to combat it”. In protest, the PP has pulled out of an agreement with the prime minister’s Socialists to end four years of impasse in the judiciary which would have seen the appointment of new senior magistrates.

The government needs the parliamentary support of ERC in the coming weeks in order to approve its 2023 budget, although Sánchez has insisted that this has nothing to do with the sedition initiative. He and others in the government have sought to downplay the reform, saying that it does not have enough parliamentary support to flourish at the moment, although many observers have pointed out that the proposal would in fact pass with a narrow majority.

Meanwhile, some senior figures within Sánchez’s own party have expressed opposition to a possible sedition reform, amid concerns it could hurt their support among unionist voters. Emiliano García-Page, the Socialist president of the Castilla-La Mancha region and a critic of last year’s government pardons, said that “the drive for independence has to have a penal consequence, you can phrase it how you like, but the constitution needs to defend itself”.