Spain: Locking up Catalan separatists
Catalans have poured into the streets in grief and outrage, said the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia (Spain) in an editorial. In the regional capital of Barcelona, thousands of protesters blocked roads, stormed the airport, and hurled rocks at riot police, who blasted back with tear gas and rubber bullets. These demonstrators are furious that Spain’s Supreme Court has sentenced nine leaders of the region’s separatist movement to prison terms ranging from nine to 13 years for sedition. Their crime? Organizing a 2017 referendum on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain—a vote Madrid deemed illegal—followed almost immediately by a declaration of independence. All of the defendants were acquitted of the charge of rebellion, which could have resulted in 25-year sentences. Yet the prison terms are still “harsh” and “do not help calm spirits in our polarized society.” Catalonia is far from united on the verdicts. This wealthy region, which has its own language and culture, has been wrestling with the concept of independence for decades, and the issue is still not settled. To calm tensions, Catalans should vote for leaders in next month’s national elections who will use political dialogue—not unilateralism and “street agitation”—to resolve our differences.
It cannot be acceptable for a European country to punish citizens for expressing political opposition, said Bart Eeckhout in De Morgen (Belgium). The European Union seemed to recognize that in recent years, censuring Hungary and Poland for their crackdowns on civil society. So where is the censure for Spain? It was perfectly legitimate for Spain to block Catalan secession—after all, that was “the will of the vast majority in the country.” But long prison sentences for a political infraction? That is the stuff of authoritarianism. “Where democratic political opposition is classified as a crime, the rule of law is crumbling.” Spain is now seeking the extradition of Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia who fled to Belgium in 2017. If we send him home, we’ll betray our own democratic ideals.
Political opposition is one thing, said the Madrid-based El País (Spain); secession, quite another. Unilaterally declaring independence from Madrid was against the law, even if most Catalans had wished it—and given that turnout in the illegal 2017 referendum was only 43 percent, that is far from clear. Had the ringleaders not been punished, “the seed of tyranny would have been planted.” The court has ruled correctly, and “upheld our democratic system.”
The Catalan separatists knew that imprisonment was a possibility, said Giles Tremlett in The Guardian (U.K.). By declaring independence, they invited Spanish authorities to arrest them, in the honorable tradition of civil disobedience. They will be “hailed as martyrs to their cause and become an inspiration for future generations.” But for now their cause is on ice. The rest of the EU mostly sides with Madrid, and even in Catalonia, “support for independence remains below 50 percent.” Had the separatists focused on building support for their cause, rather than hastily declaring independence, they might now have a majority. “The jail sentences are for sedition, but their real problem is hubris.” ■