Spain criminalizes the Catalan pro-independence movement on the eve of the 2nd anniversary of the 1-O referendum

A few days ahead of the sentences against the nine Catalan and political leaders in pre-trial detention since autumn 2017, Spanish authorities launch an operation to criminalize independentism and demobilise Catalan protesters.

On September the 23rd, nine Catalan activists were arrested by the Spanish police, accused of terrorism and rebellion without clear evidence. On September the 26th, seven of the accused were sent to pre-trial detention without bail. The operation has been called for by Spain’s National Court (Audiencia Nacional) in Madrid, direct heir of the Francoist Public Order Court.

These nine activists, whose crimes are to defend the right to self-determination of the Catalan people and who have not committed any crime, but who instead are accused of allegedly wanting to commit sabotage. Except for two cases, the home entrances and searches of the accused were performed without the presence of their legal representatives. Moreover, both the legal representatives of the accused and the local Members of the Bar Association (Col·legi d’Advocats) were kept in the dark for 48 h about the actual crimes the accused were charged for.

Two of the accused’s lawyers were forcefully replaced by state-appointed legal aid lawyer and in unsettling circumstances, their clients were interrogated uninterruptedly for 7 and 8 hours respectively during the early hours of September 24th-25th, without the statutory minimum period of rest. Details on the proceedings have been leaked to Spanish media outlets with the intention to create a negative initial image of the detainees, to which their lawyers still did not have access. The presumption of innocence has not been respected either. These circumstances are a blatant violation of the rights to defence of the detainees.

This is another attempt to intimidate and criminalize the Catalan pro-independence movement on the eve of the 2nd anniversary of the 1st of October 2017 referendum, which strategically coincides with the upcoming release of the sentences of the nine Catalan social and political leaders in prison. The court will most likely ask the highest penalty- up to 25 years of jail and 25 years of public representation ban- for calling for peaceful protests and exercising their prerogatives of calling for a referendum for the independence of Catalonia, (in October 2017) following the democratic will of the Catalan people, which provides steps towards achieving a Catalan state.

As with many other cases with the Spanish anti-terrorism law, there does not appear to be any true indications that violent actions were being planned, and Spain is again using criminal law to coerce the Catalan minority into not voicing their political opinions or exercising their right to protest.

In April 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression urged the Spanish authorities to refrain from pursuing criminal charges of rebellion against political figures and protesters belonging to the Catalan minority involved in the independence referendum. In early 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues stated, that “non-violent political dissent by minorities should not give rise to criminal charges” and joined “the concerns” of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

Against those warnings, in June this year, in its findings related to the trials of the Catalan independence leaders, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions stated “that the purpose of the criminal charge and the resulting trial is to coerce them on account of the political opinions they have expressed”, and called on the Spanish government for their immediate release.

The improper use of the anti-terrorism law and other high crimes has a chilling effect on public participation. Spain is again using criminal law to coerce the Catalan minority into not voicing their political opinions. Consequently, many Catalans are increasingly afraid to engage in public life.

The deterioration of the situation concerning civil and political rights in one EU member state is an issue that erodes the whole legitimacy of the European integration project, as it directly goes against one of its main foundations: the respect for democracy and fundamental rights. Therefore, it sets a dangerous precedent for all European Citizens.

The situation in Spain and EU institutions inaction also attacks the credibility of the European Union as a democratic project, and therefore its capacity to project influence overseas.