Nine Catalan political prisoners walked free from prison on Wednesday morning. The Spanish government has granted pardons to them, who were serving decade-long sentences for their role in the 2017 referendum and independence push. The cabinet approved the measure at its weekly meeting on Tuesday, after its president, Pedro Sánchez, had announced it on Monday, arguing the decision had been made in order to support “reconciliation” among Catalans and between Catalonia and Spain. However, many analysts say that international pressure played a significant role in the matter.

The Supreme Court, which convicted the nine politicians and activists of sedition in the fall of 2019, with prison sentences ranging from 9 to 13 years, greenlighted the pardons on Wednesday morning, allowing them to walk free having served nearly four years in prison. “These pardons directly benefit nine people, but the Spanish government is thinking of the hundreds of thousands of Catalans who have sympathy for those in prison,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. The pardons are partial, meaning that the nine leaders are still barred from holding public office, and reversible in the sense that they will be suspended if the leaders commit a “serious crime” in the coming years.

International concern

The imprisonment of Catalan leaders has long raised concerns among human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. The Council of Europe joined calls for their freedom on Monday, when a majority of 70 to 28 in its parliamentary assembly voted to approve a report calling the convictions “disproportionate.” Besides, some of the political prisoners have started to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with the support of the most important human rights organizations in some cases.

While the pardons will effectively set the nine leaders free, the Spanish president stressed that the measure “does not question” the Supreme Court verdict. Sànchez also explained that he does not expect pro-independence leaders to renounce their political goals, but for them to respect the law. “They were not convicted for their ideas, but for contravening the law,” he said. After years of ever-increasing tensions between Spain and Catalonia, the territorial dispute reached its peak in the fall of 2017, when the Catalan government pushed ahead with an unauthorized referendum and Spain responded by sacking the cabinet and suspending the region’s self-rule.

Catalan president calls for referendum

Catalan president Pere Aragonès said that the pardons recognize the sentencing of the nine leaders as “unfair,” and greeted the measure as a “step forward” that shows that negotiation can help solve the political conflict. As the presidential frontrunner of ERC, Aragonès defended dialogue as the best way to achieve independence and prevailed in the last election over political allies favoring a more confrontational approach.

Aragonès also urged Spain to “end repression” by supporting an amnesty for all people facing prosecution for their role in the independence bid, including former president Carles Puigdemont and other exiled politicians. “Pardons don’t solve the overall case against the independence movement, with hundreds of people awaiting trial,” he said. Catalonia’s head of government also called on Sánchez to agree on a self-determination referendum “recognized internationally,” which he says is the solution favored by a majority of Catalans.

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