BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Monday that the Spanish Cabinet will approve pardons for nine separatist Catalan politicians and activists imprisoned for their roles in the 2017 push to break away from Spain.
Sánchez made the announcement in Barcelona, during a speech set to lay the roadmap for the future of the northeastern region, before a few hundred civil society representatives. He said the Cabinet would approve the pardons on Tuesday.
Twelve separatist leaders were convicted of sedition and other crimes and nine of them were handed lengthy prison terms after they pushed ahead with a banned secession referendum and declared independence a few days later based on its results. Most unionists boycotted the vote, which took place amid a police crackdown intended to stop it.
“With this action, we materially get nine people out of prison, but we symbolically add millions and millions of people to coexistence,” Sánchez said in his speech, titled “Reunion: a project for the future of all Spain.”
“We are going to do it for the sake of agreement, we are going to do it wholeheartedly," he added.
No prominent pro-independence supporters attended the speech at the Catalan regional capital’s opera house. Outside the venue, an anti-establishment party and the main pro-independence civil society group were holding a protest.
The prime minister was interrupted by an activist who carried the unofficial pro-independence Catalan flag and shouted in favor of granting full amnesty to the separatists. While pardons are granted by the government as a way to spare punishment to those convicted, amnesty is seen as a recognition that no fault was committed in the first place.
Oriol Junqueras, the former regional vice president and the highest-ranking imprisoned separatist, said over the weekend that the pardons also “show the weakness of the state's apparatus" and suggested that their timing was because the government fears that higher European courts will overturn the separatists' convictions in Spain.
“The state is now trying to protect itself against the abusive measures it had taken before," Junqueras told Catalunya Radio.
The pardons have also become a divisive political issue at the national level. While the powerful Catholic Church in Catalonia and the main business associations have supported them, Spain’s Supreme Court has opposed them because separatists have not shown contrition.
More than 60% of polled Spaniards are also against them, including about half of those who voted for Sánchez's Socialists in the last general election.
Thousands opposed to the move called for Sánchez's resignation earlier this month in Madrid, during a protest supported by three opposition parties from the political center to the far-right.
On Monday, opposition leader Pablo Casado of the conservative Popular Party accused Sánchez of yielding to pressure from the separatists in exchange for support from Catalan lawmakers in the national parliament and, ultimately, to remain in power.
“Sánchez is not trying to solve a national problem,” Casado said. “He's destroying the foundations of our democracy, systematically disarming the state."
The prime minister didn't elaborate in his speech on whether the pardons would cover all or part of the nine to 13 years of prison sentences that the separatists received. After Cabinet's approval on Tuesday, King Felipe VI will need to sign off on them before the Supreme Court issues individual rulings on how the pardons affect each of the convicted separatists.
Tensions over secession in the Catalan-speaking region of 7.5 million grew in earnest a decade ago amid recession-driven economic hardship and discontent over a conservative government's opposition to greater autonomy.
Sánchez and Catalonia's new regional chief, Pere Aragonès, are set to hold talks later this month, but both sides strongly disagree on the independence issue. Sánchez has ruled out allowing a referendum and has said that greater autonomy would please more Catalans.
AP reporter Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.
Hernán Muñoz And Emilio Morenatti, The Associated Press