Former Spanish PM under investigation for discrediting Catalan politicians

Mariano Rajoy allegedly blackmailed bank for information on independence leaders’ private accounts

VilaWeb
Mariano Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont in 2016
VilaWeb / Catalan News Agency
15.06.2022 - 11:29
Actualització: 15.06.2022 - 13:20

A court in the Pyrenean microstate of Andorra is set to investigate former Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy and two of his former cabinet ministers for allegedly blackmailing bank directors in 2014 to get them to release information regarding Catalan independence leaders’ private accounts in what has come to be known as ‘Operation Catalonia’.

Spanish officials sought information about the bank accounts of former Catalan president Jordi Pujol and his family and then-president Artur Mas, and then-vice president Oriol Junqueras, according to an article published by Catalan digital newspaper ‘El Món’ on Monday night and confirmed by VilaWeb. The investigation will affect Rajoy, former interior minister Jorge Ferández Díaz, and Cristóbal Montoro, the former finance minister. The judge will also be looking into three former high officials who allegedly extorted Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA) bank directors.

The three politicians are part of the Spanish People’s Party, which ruled with an absolute majority in Spain between 2011 and 2015. Rajoy was in power until 2018 when a no-confidence vote saw Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez become Primer Minister. The judge, Stephanie Garcia, has already written to Spanish courts to have them inform the six former officials that they are under investigation and should hire lawyers in Andorra.

Alleged extortion, coercion and blackmail

According to the judicial document, part of which has been published by the Catalan outlet, the investigation focuses on the alleged extortion, coercion and blackmail that occurred in 2014 with the aim of illegally obtaining information on the bank account details of pro-independence former Catalan president Jordi Pujol, then-president Artur Mas, and then-vice president Oriol Junqueras as well as their families.

The Catalan People’s Party leader, Alejandro Fernández, called for the “absolute respect” for the presumption of innocence of his party mates. “Any democrat, when talking about a judicial process, has to keep two things in mind. First, the absolute respect for all legal proceedings until they are final, and second, the presumption of innocence of those who are under investigation,” Fernández said on Tuesday.

The Catalan government considered it “a shame” that the Andorran judiciary and not the Spanish has begun to investigate Mariano Rajoy. During a press conference after the weekly Tuesday cabinet meeting, spokesperson Patrícia Plaja said Catalan authorities would  “collaborate as needed” with Andorra.

Operation Catalonia

The original ‘Operation Catalonia’ referred to a conspiracy scandal of some key officials in the Spanish administration to plot and find information to discredit pro-independence leaders in the years that followed the beginning of the independence push in 2012.

The case came to light when a conversation held in 2014 between the then head of Catalonia’s anti-fraud office, Daniel de Alfonso, and the then Spanish interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, was leaked in 2016 – they were both seemingly plotting against the independence camp. De Alfonso was sacked from his post and Fernández Díaz was no longer minister by the end of the year.

In July 2016, a former police official, José Manuel Villarejo, admitted that a secret plot involving several elements of the Spanish administration, including himself, existed from 2012. Villarejo, in provisional jail between 2017 and 2021, was part of the team of police officers that were tasked with finding information to damage the reputations of Catalan leaders, and is being investigated by anti-corruption prosecutors.

He was freed from prison, months before reaching the fourth year in jail without a trial. As no trial date had yet been scheduled, the ‘Audiencia Nacional’ High Court released him under Spanish law. In May 2022, José Manuel Villarejo admitted that Spain undertook “actions” that were “absolutely illegal” to quell the rise of the independence movement in the past decade, but at the same time defended these actions because they pursued a “higher good” – maintaining the unity of Spain.

Leaked conversations were published by Spanish newspaper El País on May 18 between Villarejo and Francisco Martínez, an official in Spain’s interior ministry at the time, suggesting that Spain plotted fake news reports to discredit the independence movement just before an election in Catalonia.

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